Shortly before traveling to Moscow with several colleagues, a senior Republican senator all but gave Russia a green light for future interference in U.S. elections.
"Most countries would meddle and play in our domestic elections if they could, and some of them have," the Washington Examiner quoted Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican and chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, as saying.
"We have to be realistic nations are going to do what is in their next [sic] interest; we’ve done a lot of things too.”
Shelby, a former chairman of the Senate’s intelligence committee, is leading a delegation of Republican senators to Russia for nine days to meet with Russian officials. It’s unclear if they will meet with Vladimir Putin or his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
Asked by The Daily Beast to clarify his comments later on Thursday, Shelby said: “I think people try to influence—well, in probably different degrees—our foreign policy, influence our foreign policy, influence different things. They have lobbyists. They have everything. They have propaganda—even some of our allies.”
Asked if his comments appeared to excuse the Russian interference, Shelby replied: “I didn’t say they were all the same. I didn’t excuse anything. I was just stating the reality of it.”
Shelby’s comments echoed Trump’s infamous “you think our country’s so innocent?” line after Bill O’Reilly called Putin a killer. And they came shortly after the White House confirmed Trump will meet with Putin in Helsinki on July 16.
Senior Trump administration officials, intelligence chiefs and legislators of both parties have warned of credible threats that Russia will continue its U.S. election meddling, having faced negligible consequences, perhaps in November’s midterm elections. Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security, said in March that she sees Russia “continuing to conduct foreign influence campaigns.”
Without specifically calling out Shelby, Mark Warner, the senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, which has issued recommendations for securing the November elections, said the risk of another Russian election hack was real.
“It would be a mistake to downplay the significance of the Russian threat. It was incredibly effective in 2016, and there’s no reason to believe that Putin is going to stop, particularly since the President seems determined to ensure that Putin pay no price for his unprecedented interference in our democratic process,” Warner told The Daily Beast. “We need to take this seriously, and do everything we can to protect the security of our elections ahead of the November midterms.”
But with Trump continuing to deny the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia hacked the 2016 election, Russia experts feared that Shelby’s line could represent a new acquiescence on the right to foreign meddling in U.S. elections now that it has brought them power.
Evelyn Farkas, a senior Pentagon official overseeing Russia policy in the Obama administration, expressed disgust at what she called Shelby’s false equivalence.
“It’s appalling. It’s worse than irresponsible. It’s a dereliction of duty to say something like this,” Farkas told The Daily Beast.
“This is whatabout-ism, this is false equivalence. We may teach opposition politicians how to operate or train journalists to investigate. That’s very different from hacking into state voter rolls, or directly targeting our citizens on Facebook knowing who and where the swing voters are, or hacking into a major party’s computer system, or into one of the candidates’ senior staff members’ email and making it public, or paying people in the U.S. to spread propaganda and represent Russian interests, or funding one of the campaigns.”