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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Russia House: Traitors on Capitol Hill

The Russia House: Traitors on Capitol Hill

How seven members of Congress have, wittingly or not, helped Putin and weakened America.


I. Vladimir the Puny


Like Joseph Stalin, like Catherine the Great, like Ivan the Terrible, Vladimir Putin seeks to expand Russian territory. He models himself after Peter the Great, Russia’s most successful tsar, and also its tallest—the size of an NBA center, Peter was almost two full feet taller than Putin.

The current Russian strongman has harbored imperial ambitions since he took the job a quarter century ago. This is no big secret. Here is what Senator John McCain told the BBC in September 2014, a few months after Putin’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea:

Vladimir Putin’s ambitions were very well known to me and to others. He knew that once [Russian puppet president and Paul Manafort client] Yanukovich left, he had to take Crimea because of [the Russian naval base at] Sevastopol. He armed the separatists; that didn’t work. So then he’d send in thousands of Russian troops. The fact is that they were slaughtering Ukrainians. There were hundreds killed, thousands in the hospital. It’s terrible. [New president] Poroshenko had no choice but to agree to a ceasefire. What is going to happen? I predict to you that it will be another step in Vladimir Putin’s strategy to separate Eastern Ukraine from Ukraine, and perhaps a land bridge to Crimea.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear weapons than almost any other nation on earth. Three years later, in the Budapest Memorandum, Kyiv agreed to surrender those weapons to Moscow, on the condition that Russia not invade Ukraine. The United States offered “security assurance” in the event of a Russian invasion.

But when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Washington did fuck-all. President Obama, in a major foreign policy blunder, decided to appease Putin rather than risk escalation. As punishment, the U.S. imposed some sanctions that were the equivalent of throwing Bugs Bunny into the rabbit hole. As McCain points out in the interview, not only did Obama refuse to supply arms to the Ukrainians in Crimea, he also refused to share intelligence with Kyiv. “[W]e didn’t want to, quote, ‘provoke Vladimir Putin.’ By showing weakness, we provoked Vladimir Putin.”

Putin wants to conquer Ukraine. If successful, he will then invade Moldova, which borders Ukraine to the west; the Baltic States, to re-connect Kaliningrad to Russia proper; and, if his bizarre ranting in the Tucker Carlson interview can be believed, Poland. What will end his imperial aims is a United States fully committed to providing Kyiv with whatever weapons it needs to repel the occupiers. As soon as Washington does that, Russia will be repulsed from Eastern Ukraine—including from Crimea—and Putin can stick his dreams of empire where the sun don’t shine.

To achieve his aims, then, Putin has done—and will continue to do—everything in his power to prevent Congress from authorizing a major Ukraine spending bill. That means: sowing division on Capitol Hill, fomenting havoc on the world stage to get Russia’s atrocious war crimes off the front page, pushing Kremlin disinformation in Western media, and weakening the candidacy of President Biden (whose re-election he opposes, despite public intimations to the contrary). He will stop at nothing. He doesn’t care how many people, including his own Russian nationals, die along the way. He is a psychopath, and he will continue making old-fashioned war on Ukraine and information war on the West until he is removed.

There can be no equivocation here. At this stage of the game, any American politician who blocks a spending bill to arm Ukraine is, knowingly or not, aiding Vladimir Putin.

John McCain recognized Putin for what he is long ago. The Republican Party he left behind seems to have forgotten.

II. The Russia House


In early June of 2023, Ukraine began its widely anticipated counteroffensive. For Putin, the situation was dire. The Ukrainians had not surrendered meekly, as he believed they would. The war had become a quagmire. His occupying forces had gone as far into Ukraine as they could; now those ill-equipped, poorly trained soldiers had to withstand the Ukrainian counterattack.

The fall of 2023, when Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin were fighting, was the moment when Russia was at its most vulnerable. That was the moment when Ukraine was most in need of arms. That was the moment when the United States should have opened the floodgates and sent whatever weaponry Zelenskyy wanted.

This did not come to pass. Instead, for most of 2023, seven key members of Congress—Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, James Comer, and Mike Johnson in the House; and in the Senate, Tom Tuberville, Rand Paul, and Chuck Grassley—collectively: stymied Biden’s ability to pass a suitable Ukraine aid package; stubbornly held up military promotions and appointments to ambassadorships for nonsensical reasons; actively disseminated disinformation about Hunter Biden that originated, we now know, with the Russian intelligence services; and, as Hamas attacked Israel, ground an entire chamber of Congress to a halt.

Whether these seven Republicans did this intentionally to help Moscow or not, I do not know; ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Their activities during the spring, summer, and fall of 2023 thwarted the ability of Biden and the United States to help Ukraine, prolonged the war, hijacked the House (which with the Senate controls the national purse), weakened our military and our State Department, and hurt Biden’s re-election prospects. The ultimate beneficiary of their collective actions was Vladimir Putin.

Let’s revisit the timeline:

MARCH 31, 2023


Senator Tom Tuberville announces a “blanket hold” on all military appointments, supposedly to protest the military’s abortion policy. Tuberville does not explain how, in his calculus, a few blastocysts are more valuable than the actual living humans whose lives are jeopardized by a weakened military. (He has been holding up appointments since February.)



James Comer, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, and his sidekick Jim Jordan have been blathering about Hunter Biden’s alleged shady business dealings in Ukraine for years. There’s no there there. It’s bullshit. But they keep at it, relentlessly. By promoting the “Biden Crime Family” false narrative, they hope to sully Biden’s good name, hurt his son, provide content for friendly rightwing media networks, push the “both parties are the same” horseshit, help Trump, and cause a distraction for the president.

We now know that by May of 2023, a confidential informant named—I swear I’m not making this up—Alexander Smirnov had been feeding disinformation from Russian intelligence to the FBI. These lies were contained in an FD-1023 document—Smirnov’s informant report. On May 3, House Oversight issues a subpoena for that document, which they claim involved a “criminal scheme involving then-Vice President Joe Biden and a foreign national.”



Ukraine’s counteroffensive begins.



Comer threatens to find Christopher Wray, the FBI director, in contempt of Congress if the Bureau doesn’t turn over Smirnov’s FD-1023.

Rand Paul—a senator with long Kremlin ties, who John McCain once accused of “working for Vladimir Putin” on the Senate floor—begins his “blanket hold” on all high-level diplomatic appointments. His ransom demands are some documents related to the origins of covid-19—or so he claims. “I’m in the process of blocking nominations and legislation if they will not help me to get documents pertaining to COVID-19,” he tweets. “I’m not letting anything pass.” This is, needless to say, not particularly urgent.



Russians destroy Kakhovka Dam in Kherson Oblast, causing mass flooding and loss of civilian life. This is yet another war crime.



Comer gets access to Smirnov’s FD-1023, remains unsatisfied.

In Ukraine, Yevgeny Prigozhin announces that his Wagner Group mercenaries, by far Russia’s best fighters, are in a mutiny against the leadership of the Russian military, claiming 2,000 of his soldiers had been killed.



Putin is in near-panic mode as Prigozhin and his men march towards Moscow. Belarus intervenes, and the possible coup attempt stops. This is arguably Russia’s weakest position since the war started.



Biden approves the deployment of more munitions to Ukraine, a package worth some $800 million—chump change, in the grand scheme of things.



At the NATO summit in Vilnius, members affirm their support for Ukraine joining the alliance—which would be Putin’s worst nightmare.



The US Global Leadership Coalition puts out a press release: “VACANCIES ATOP AMERICA’S FOREIGN AFFAIRS AGENCIES ENDANGER U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY.” This is a direct result of Paul’s “blanket hold,” now in its sixth week. Per the release:

Close to 60 nominees for critical leadership positions at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. embassies, and other U.S. foreign affairs agencies are currently awaiting Senate confirmation…

Nearly 50 U.S. embassies – 25% of all embassies – are awaiting a Senate vote on a nominated ambassador to represent the United States in those countries. More than 35 of those embassies currently have no sitting U.S. ambassador.

Among the ambassador-less countries are Belarus, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE—most of Israel’s neighbors.



The New York Times runs an article under the headline “Blinken Calls Blockade of Diplomatic Nominees a National Security Risk:”

“These delays are undermining our national security,” Mr. Blinken told reporters during an unusual appearance at the State Department’s daily news media briefing. The overwhelming majority of the stalled State Department nominees are career diplomats, and more than a third have been awaiting votes for about a year or more, he added.

Mr. Blinken said that no one had questioned the diplomats’ qualifications. “They are being blocked for leverage on other unrelated issues.” He said that stand-ins for empty ambassador posts, like officials with the titles of chargé d’affaires, lacked the same access and influence as ambassadors in foreign capitals.



In a move the press describes as “exceedingly rare,” Chuck Grassley releases Alexander Smirnov’s FD-1023, with the informant’s name redacted. ABC News reports:

The FD-1023 cites an unnamed source who recounts a series of interactions in 2015 and 2016 with Mykola Zlochevsky, the chief executive of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm that hired Hunter Biden as a board member in 2013.

The source says in the FD-1023 that in a meeting and in phone calls over the next year, Zlochevsky claimed that he was “forced” to pay Joe and Hunter Biden $5 million each, apparently in exchange for firing a Ukrainian prosecutor named Viktor Shokin who was purportedly investigating Burisma at the time.

When Smirnov is indicted in February 2024, he will be accused of fabricating this report:

Smirnov falsely claimed that during these meetings, executives associated with Burisma, admitted to him that they hired Businessperson 1 to “protect us, through his dad, from all kinds of problems,” and later that they had specifically paid $5 million each to Public Official 1 and Businessperson 1, when Public Official 1 was still in office, so that “[Businessperson 1] will take care of all those issues through his dad,” referring to a criminal investigation being conducted by the then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General into Burisma and to “deal with [the then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General].” 

As alleged in the indictment, the events that Smirnov first reported to the FBI Agent in June 2020 were fabrications. In truth and fact, the defendant had contact with executives from Burisma in 2017, after the end of the administration when Public Official 1 had no ability to influence U.S. policy and after the Ukrainian Prosecutor General had been fired in February 2016. The indictment alleges that the defendant transformed his routine and unextraordinary business contacts with Burisma in 2017 and later into bribery allegations against Public Official 1 after expressing bias against Public Official 1 and his presidential candidacy.

As further alleged in the indictment, when he was interviewed by FBI agents in September 2023, Smirnov repeated some of his false claims, changed his story as to other of his claims, and promoted a new false narrative after he said he met with Russian officials.

We later learn that Smirnov—the primary Hunter Biden source for Comer and Jordan—has “extensive” contacts with the Kremlin.



Thomas Nides steps down as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, leaving the position vacant. There are still vacancies in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE. That’s half the Middle East.



Rand Paul drops his “blanket hold” on State Department nominees. This happens on the last day before Congress recesses for summer break—so, effectively, the delay on confirmations lasts until the Senate is back in session the Tuesday after Labor Day.



Because he wants to preserve the integrity and perception of fairness at the DOJ, or some other malarkey, Merrick Garland appoints Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss as special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden. It is Weiss, ironically, who will later bring the indictment against Alexander Smirnov.

The U.S. announces sanctions against the four principals behind Russia’s Alfa Bank.



Prigozhin is killed.



The Senate reconvenes from summer recess.



In Kyiv, Blinken pledges an additional $1 billion in U.S. aid—chump change.



The House returns from summer recess. Matt Gaetz immediately begins making moves to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy unless certain demands are met, including single-subject appropriations bills and a Hunter Biden subpoena. Basically, Gaetz doesn’t want a bill for more funding to Ukraine bundled with anything else. He seeks support from Democrats in ousting McCarthy but finds no takers.



In part to mollify Gaetz, Comer, and Jordan, McCarthy announces an impeachment inquiry into President Biden’s business dealings. The Speaker has to make concessions because funding for the government is set to expire at the end of the month. Spectrum News reports:

On a press call after his remarks on the House floor, Gaetz said he would hold votes to kick McCarthy from leadership every day if necessary.

“We’re going to have them regularly. I don’t anticipate them passing immediately. But I think that if we have to begin every single day in Congress with the prayer, the pledge and the motion to vacate, then so be it,” he said, adding if McCarthy brought a stopgap measure to keep the government funded beyond a Sept. 30 deadline, he would immediately initiate a vote.



Hunter Biden is indicted by Weiss on—wait for it—federal gun charges. Nothing whatsoever to do with Burisma, Ukraine, or his father.



Zelenskyy is in Washington, meets with Biden and officials at the Pentagon.

Russia hits Kyiv, Kherson, and other targets in Ukraine in the “biggest attack in weeks.” The fear is that the counteroffensive wasn’t as decisive as hoped for, and that the tide is starting to turn back towards Russia.



With the government set to shut down in eight days, Matt Gaetz resumes his quixotic quest to eighty-six McCarthy. The New York Times reports:

At a closed-door meeting with Republicans in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday night, Speaker Kevin McCarthy pitched what he thought could finally be a breakthrough in a spending dispute with right-wing rebels that had left the House in a state of paralysis, staring down a disastrous shutdown with no way to move forward.

Then Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who months ago emerged as Mr. McCarthy’s chief tormentor, rose to speak.

Mr. Gaetz announced flatly that he had seven members who would oppose any plan to pass a stopgap measure to keep the government from shutting down on Oct. 1, no matter what spending or policy concessions Mr. McCarthy was willing to make to win them over. The proclamation did not go over well in the room, where even some members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus grumbled in disapproval.

What no one seems to be able to articulate is why Gaetz is obstructing like this. Could it be that he doesn’t want Ukraine aid tied to the bill? Because that’s certainly how it appears.



With McCarthy unable to sway members of the Ultra-MAGA caucus, the Senate passes a funding bill. Per NPR:

The bill includes $4.5 billion to support Ukraine through the defense budget, $1.65 in other aid for the country and $6 billion for disaster relief. It would also extend authorization for Federal Aviation Administration programs through the end of the year. The plan is the result of bipartisan talks but the fate of the bill is far from clear.



Russia stands down, allowing Azeri forces to take Nagorno-Karabakh.



With two days left to fund the government, Matt Gaetz and Kevin McCarthy exchange heated words in a closed-door GOP meeting. Rep. French Hill, a McCarthy ally, reportedly tells Gaetz to “fuck off.” Gaetz, unfortunately, does not take Hill’s advice.



The House rejects a bill, backed by Kevin McCarthy, to fund the government.



At the eleventh hour, a bill is passed, averting a government shutdown. McCarthy has to work with Democrats to find the votes, which Gaetz finds intolerable—even though $6 billion in aid to Ukraine was scrapped from the bill.

Reportedly, there was a deal in place between McCarthy and the White House to pass a Ukraine package. Per AP:

That afternoon, the House approved the package hours before the midnight deadline to keeping government open. The Ukraine aid was dropped.

Gone from the final bill was not only the $6 billion in Ukraine assistance, but also pages of text outlining the ability to transfer funds to Ukraine.

It was just what McConnell had been trying to avoid.

In the aftermath, the White House made it clear that McCarthy had made a commitment on Ukraine beyond what was in the package.

But when reporters asked McCarthy about it, the speaker said there’s no “secret deal” with Biden on Ukraine.

What there was, McCarthy explained, was an assurance that the ability to transfer funds for Ukraine would remain intact. If there was any confusion about that, he said, “We’ll fix it.”



Knowing that McCarthy had promised Biden a Ukraine package in that secret deal, Matt Gaetz votes to remove McCarthy—which he is able to do because of dumb conditions put in place when McCarthy got the gig. Now the House has no Speaker.



Russian strikes on Kherson Oblast intensify. On my podcast, Zarina Zabrisky, who is in Kherson reporting, tells me: “We have arrived here ten days ago, and just in that time, the attacks intensified to a somewhat unbelievably, almost ridiculous amount. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve been in Ukraine for almost two years. There are explosions sometimes every five minutes; sometimes there’s an hour of silence and then they start again. And in the middle of September the Russians started to drop air bombs on the city….They are targeting civilian places, critical infrastructure.”

write this:

Victory in Ukraine will only embolden Putin, who would then seek to invade Moldova, Georgia, Armenia—maybe even Poland. All we need to do to defeat him, meanwhile, is arm the Ukrainians properly. That’s it. This is arguably the most worthwhile aid investment the U.S. has ever made. Why don’t Republicans understand this? Could it be that they do understand this, and are actively working to prevent that outcome?



On Vladimir Putin’s 71st birthday, Hamas launches a surprise attack on Israel, slaughtering, raping, and butchering innocent civilians. As this happens, the United States has no Speaker of the House—and thus no way to fund anything—and no ambassador in Israel.



The IDF begins its response in Gaza.



Palestinian leader Abbas meets Putin in Moscow.

Jim Jordan—who has zero chance of winning—is nominated to be House Speaker.



A bomb hits the parking lot at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. The initial reports, much amplified on social media, are that Israel targeted the hospital itself, intentionally. This is the beginning of public sympathy turning against Israel.

Jordan loses his Speaker bid.



Biden visits Israel to pledge support.

Jordan loses Speaker bid again.



Jordan loses Speaker bid a third time.



Little-known Congressman Mike Johnson, a Christian extremist from Louisiana, is elected Speaker of the House, ending a 22-day period where the position was vacant. As it turns out, he is adamantly opposed to giving aid to Ukraine.



A senior Hamas delegation visits Moscow.



Jack Lew is confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Israel.



Hunter Biden is subpoenaed by Comer.



Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are the only two senators of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opposed to Biden’s plan to give aid to Ukraine. “You can have all of this goodwill, and try to fix the world’s problems, but you are ignoring the rot and ruin you are creating in your own country,” Paul says, employing his typical deflection. “What is being done at the State Department to search for an offramp?” 



Tuberville drops his “blanket hold” on military promotions. Among the posts held vacant because of his obstinance: the head of U.S. Cyber Command and the new director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

III. The Chessboard


Look at what happened, in the big picture:

When Kevin McCarthy came to an agreement with Biden to approve a major package of aid to Ukraine, Matt Gaetz immediately—like, within hours—removed him as Speaker. After three weeks of bungling, with the threat of troglodytic Jim Jordan taking up the gavel, Mike Johnson was installed. Johnson still refuses to allow a vote on aid to Ukraine: $95 billion is what the Senate has passed.

At House Oversight, meanwhile, Comer and Jordan—with an assist from Grassley—disseminated straight-up Russian propaganda, designed to weaken Joe Biden and hurt his re-election chances. Their “Biden Crime Family” false narrative, which any thinking human must admit had no basis in reality, commanded the attention of rightwing media for months.

And in the Senate, for different but equally dumb reasons, Tuberville and Paul held up confirmation votes on military and diplomatic appointees for much of 2023. Paul also sought to stymie Senate aid packages to Ukraine.

This all came to a head in October 2023, when—at a moment when there was no Speaker of the House, strained military leadership, and no ambassadors in half the countries in the Middle East—Hamas provoked Israel, on Putin’s birthday, knocking Russian atrocities in Ukraine off the front page. Biden subsequently picked up the “Genocide Joe” moniker and lost standing with Gen Z voters.

Whether this was coordinated or just random, I don’t know. But all of it helped Putin.

What do these seven members of Congress have in common? Gaetz and Jordan have both been mired in scandals involving sex crimes. Comer is, allegedly, an abuser. Johnson has all kinds of weird stuff in his background, not least the “adoption” of a 14-year-old boy when he was in his early twenties. Paul’s ties to Russia have been well documented; remember, this is the same guy who hand-delivered a letter to Putin and who McCain accused of working for Putin. Grassley had that weird tweet on January 5, 2021, about his critical role on January 6. Tuberville was phoned by Rudy Giuliani as the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol (and is about as smart as a tackling dummy).

I will not presume to assign a motive to their Russia-boosting activity. Maybe Gaetz had a perfectly good reason to remove McCarthy, and Johnson has a perfectly good reason to kill a Ukraine aid package bill. Maybe Comer and Jordan really think Hunter funneled money to Joe, the least extravagant politician in recent memory, and therefore trusted the word of an informant named Smirnov. Maybe Tuberville believes the fairy tales about abortion, maybe Grassley is senile, and maybe Paul is just trying to keep an eye on the budget. But I ask you this: If these seven members of Congress were straight-up Kremlin assets, would they have acted any differently?

It doesn’t really matter. Intentionally or not, they helped, and are still helping, Putin. And America—and democracies everywhere—is weaker because of it.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz speaking with supporters at an “An Address to Young Americans” event, featuring President Donald Trump, hosted by Students for Trump and Turning Point Action at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona. June 25, 2020.

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