WASHINGTON — After facing a backlash, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy on Monday walked back comments he had made a day earlier questioning whether Ukraine — and not Russia — interfered in the 2016 presidential election by hacking the Democratic National Committee's computer servers.
He asserted that possibility in comments on a national television program Sunday even though intelligence officials have concluded Russia was behind the hacking.
On Monday night, Kennedy appeared on CNN and said he had "misheard" the question that was asked of him on Chris Wallace's Fox News Sunday program.
"The only evidence I have, and I think it's overwhelming, is that it was Russia who tried to hack the DNC computer. I’ve seen no indication that Ukraine tried to do it," said Kennedy, R-Madisonville.
Kennedy's comments on Fox News had quickly drawn scrutiny from those who argue that the theory he was promoting regarding Ukraine is Russian propaganda meant to diminish its own role in interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
Wallace asked Kennedy, a member of the influential U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and close ally of President Donald Trump, if he believes Russia or Ukraine was responsible for hacking the DNC and Clinton campaign computers.
"I don't know. Nor do you. Nor do any of us," Kennedy argued.
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Wallace interrupted to point out that "the entire intelligence community says it was Russia."
Kennedy replied: "Right, but it could also be Ukraine. I'm not saying that I know one way or the other."
It's unclear what Kennedy believed he was answering or how he misunderstood Wallace's direct questioning over the conspiracy theory involving Ukraine. He said on CNN, an appearance that wasn't promoted through his Twitter account the way the Fox News appearance was promoted, that he thought it was a general question about interference. That also has been debunked.
Ex-National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified in an impeachment hearing last week that the theory of Ukraine's meddling is "a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves" and warned lawmakers against perpetuating it.
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"I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests," she said in her opening statement.
Senators also have been briefed by the Intelligence Committee that the Ukraine theory is a Russian misinformation effort.
Trump allies have seized onto the message as a way to lend credence to the president's temporary withholding of foreign aid for Ukraine, which is central to the impeachment inquiry into whether Trump leveraged the aid to benefit himself politically.
"Ms. Hill is entitled to her opinion," Kennedy said in response to questions posed by Wallace.
He further argued the impeachment probe is tainted because Republicans haven’t been able to call all of the witnesses that they want in the Democratic-controlled Intelligence Committee.
"The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence if you're not allowed to call your own witnesses," said Kennedy, who traveled with seven other GOP lawmakers to Russia in July 2018.
At the time, Kennedy and others who spent July 4 in Moscow said they warned Russian officials about meddling in future U.S. elections.
"We made the point that if Russia persists in trying to influence our elections, it's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for us to establish a better relationship," Kennedy told NPR at the time, seemingly accepting that Russia was the country that interfered in 2016's elections.
The Ukraine comments came just days after Kennedy promoted another conspiracy theory linked to the death of wealthy sex offender Jeffry Epstein's death.
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“Christmas ornaments, drywall and Epstein — Name three things that don’t hang themselves. That’s what the American people think," Kennedy quipped during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday with the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons. "They deserve some answers.”
Epstein, a 66-year-old New York financier, was facing federal charges related to sex trafficking of minors when he was found dead in a New York federal detention facility in August.
Authorities have dismissed theories that Epstein was killed by someone else in his cell, and a medical examiner ruled he died by suicide. A federal indictment released last week that details activity around Epstein's cell the night of his death also appears to challenge the theory about foul play, but skepticism has nevertheless flourished.