Sleeper Cell: The Fourth of July Traitors

Has Putin activated the "Prostrate Eight" to defend Trump?

IN 2018, EIGHT REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS celebrated the Fourth of July in Moscow, Russia: Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, who led the delegation, along with Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John Neely Kennedy of Louisiana, Steve Daines of Montana, North Dakota’s John Hoeven, Jerry Moran of Kansas, South Dakota’s John Thune, and Rep. Kay Granger of the 12th District of Texas. The ostensible reason for the trip was “engagement”—the same tired excuse Senator Rand Paul routinely provides to justify his own shadowy meetings with our enemies.

The GOP octet was denied an audience with Vladimir Putin—a subtle and characteristically petty show of his dominance—but the group nevertheless met with a number of key Russians, including foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and former Russian ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak—the two jackals who 14 months earlier were photographed by the Russian press yukking it up with Trump in the Oval Office, the day after Comey was fired. Perhaps the Americans’ intention was to lay the smack down? According to Daines, the delegation “sent a very strong message and a direct message to the Russian government,” in which they requested that Russia stop fucking with 1) our elections, 2) Ukraine, and 3) Syria. Kennedy echoed this claim: “I asked our friends in Russia not to interfere in our elections this year. I asked them to exit Ukraine and allow Ukraine to self-determine. I asked for the same thing in Crimea. I asked for their help in bringing peace to Syria. And I asked them not to allow Iran to gain a foothold in Syria.”

Sounds grand—but we have no way of knowing if this is true, as the media was barred from the closed-door meetings, much to the delight of the “gloating” Russians:

Judging by the fact that Putin has completely ignored the alleged warnings to knock it off, Shelby’s recap of the meeting was likely closer to the truth. He told his Russian counterparts that their purpose was to “strive for a better relationship” with the country that sabotaged the 2016 election, and not to “accuse Russia of this or that or so forth.” Flaccid acquiescence to Putin is more on-brand for the GOP than Dirty Harry-style ultimatum.

The Russian response confirms the Shelby version of events. “We heard things we’d heard before, and I think our guests heard rather clearly and distinctly an answer that they already knew: we don’t interfere in American elections,” the multi-chinned Kislyak remarked, apparently with a straight face.

Even in the moment, the trip was met with derision, in the United States as well as Russia. Twitter had a predictable field day at the delegation’s expense. In his column in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank filleted them:

So, what do we call these Red Square Republicans? My interlocutors on Twitter suggest “Moscow Mules.” Or, given the position they put themselves in before our masters in Moscow, perhaps they should be called the Prostrate Eight.

The Russians were just as brutal in their analysis:

Daines, for his part, seems to have panicked at the optics of spending Independence Day fluffing Putin, tweeting out some savvy misdirection:

Kislyak and Lavrov were not the only major Trump/Russia figures who engaged the delegation. The lawmakers also had an audience with Rand Paul’s BFF Konstatin Kosachev, who, according to the Steele Dossier, is the Russian behind the (unverified) Michael Cohen meeting in Prague. We don’t know for certain if Prague took place, but from what I gather, Kosachev operates as an important backchannel to Putin himself. He is the smoke billowing from the bonfire of Trump/Russia collusion. President Obama obviously agreed, as Kosachev is on the US sanctions list—a fact the foreign affairs committee chair was quick to poke fun at:

Again, we don’t really have any idea what was discussed on the trip. The story in WaPo seems to contain much from Russian sources (boldface mine):

The American lawmakers discussed the upcoming Helsinki summit and other matters with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his ministry said. At the meeting at the Federation Council—the upper house of parliament—Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev raised Russia’s grievances about new American sanctions and the U.S. seizure of Russian diplomatic properties. While some members of the U.S. delegation speculated before the trip that they might see Putin himself, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that the president had no time for the visitors. 

The delegation might have been as unremarkable as most Congressional delegations to foreign countries, and quickly forgotten, but for three things: First, the trip was not bipartisan; only GOP made the trek (“Since the Democrats actively accuse the Republicans of selling out to the Russians, it would naturally be strange if Democrats here were part of the group,” said Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov). Second, the US lawmakers spent the Fourth of July in Russia (symbolism of this kind is very important in Russian culture). And third, some of the members of that delegation have been increasingly vocal in their support of Donald Trump upon their return—and especially since the start of the impeachment inquiry.

Senator Ron Johnson has been the most outspoken, defending Trump—and his Russian whoremasters—so blindly and Kool-Aid-drunkenly that Chuck Todd of all people called him out on Meet the Press

The big takeaway here is Johnson announcing that he doesn’t trust the FBI or the CIA—a tacit admission that he does trust the GRU and his Russian comrades. But there’s more to it than that. The 6 October 2019 interview is so over-the-top bat-shit that it’s best to read it, rather than watch it, to fully appreciate the extent of its crazy. To me, Johnson presents as a desperate man making what he knows deep down is a losing life-and-death argument. He is Galileo in reverse.

John Neely Kennedy has been even worse. He just straight-up propagates unfiltered Kremlin talking points. The only way his GRU propaganda could be more Putinist is if it were delivered in the original Russian. In his Washington Post op-ed, James Downie calls Kennedy “the Useful Idiot from Louisiana,” concluding:

The term “useful idiot," usually attributed to Vladimir Lenin to refer to Westerners unwittingly repeating Soviet propaganda, has often been applied too broadly since its first use. But Kennedy has amplified a Russian misinformation campaign and willfully ignored warnings about said campaign. The result? Moscow’s attempt to “get people like [Kennedy] to say these things about Ukraine” has worked spectacularly. As a phrase, “useful idiot” has never been more apt.

On this last point, I beg to differ with Downie. Despite his aw-shucks appearance, John Neely Kennedy is no idiot. The guy has a Bachelor of Civil Law degree, with first class honors, from Oxford University—not exactly a hotbed of dummies. Not only that, he isn’t even really a Republican. He was a Democrat for years, and seems to have changed sides mostly to make himself politically viable in deep red Louisiana. It is true that Trump campaigned for him during the special election in 2016. But Kennedy was never his lickspittle, his Senatorial Matt Gaetz. Indeed, in his short stint in the Senate, Kennedy is one of the few Republicans who have dared to break with POTUS a few times—most notably to advance a bill intended to stop Trump from blocking sanctions on Russia. That was this past January—six months after the Moscow trip, at which Kennedy claimed to have talked tough to the Russians.

And yet now, not quite a year later, Kennedy has, quite suddenly, gone all-in with Putin and his White House puppet. While not quite as abrupt a conversion as Rand Paul’s or Lindsey Graham’s—he did go to Moscow on Independence Day, after all—the Senator from Louisiana is, as Downie suggests, pretty clearly working for Vladimir Putin, wittingly or not.

It may be a coincidence, of course, that two of the eight lawmakers who went to Moscow for some vague reason on the fucking Fourth of July are now mouthpieces for the Kremlin. But if you ask me, this delegation of the damned has all the look of a GOP/GRU sleeper cell. Consider: Eight Republican lawmakers—and, notably, not a single Democrat—journey halfway around the world to spend Independence Day with Putin’s coziest cronies. We don’t really know what happens once they get there, but we do know that the Russians are really fucking good at both psy-ops and kompromat. In Moscow, at least two of them are turned. The “Prostrate Eight” come home, everything is cool for nine months, and then, all of the sudden—boom. The switch is activated. The sleeper cell awakens. Its mission? To fulfill the prime directive: defend Trump at all costs. Ron Johnson subsequently goes completely off the rails. John Neely Kennedy does a 180. Both Senators are both regurgitating vile RU propaganda. They return from Russia with love—or, if not love, blind allegiance to Putin. It’s The Americans, but with actual Americans.

That sounds like something from a spy novel, I realize, but I ask you: What’s the better explanation? That the damning testimony of Fiona Hill and Maria Yovanovich and Lt. Col. Vindman and Bill Taylor and George Kent and Gordon Sondland has somehow convinced Johnson and Kennedy that Trump is innocent?

For his part, the Senator from Louisiana does not deserve to share a first and last name with one of the champions of democracy, the patriot who wrote, but never got to say, these words:

We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.”

The Fourth of July traitors are not watchmen. On the contrary, they are who the watchmen are on the lookout for.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.