Once upon a time, Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, likened Donald Trump to a singularly loathsome and pathetic J.R.R. Tolkien character. “I have compared him to Gollum from Lord of the Rings,” he quipped on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show.” Gollum — the hideous, friendless creature who cares only for his precious ring and will allow the world to destroy itself to protect it. Sounds about right.
On the same broadcast, Paul denounced Trump as “a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag,” citing his similarities to Hitler and Goebbels. Paul made these comments on 25 January 2016. At the time, he was still running for president. During the interminable slate of GOP debates, in fact, he’d distinguished himself as the candidate most opposed to Trump.
But after suspending his campaign a few weeks later, Rand Paul changed tack. On 1 April 2016, he told the Cincinnati Enquirer that while he would not endorse any candidate in the Republican primary, he would vote for Trump in November. “I’m from Kentucky,” Paul said, “and Hillary Clinton recently said she would put coal miners out of business, and she would put coal companies out of business.” This bit of cynical pandering is both untrue and a foolhardy reason for entrusting the nuclear launch codes to Gollum.
Less than a year later, after Paul objected to a treaty to allow Montenegro into NATO — parroting a Kremlin position — John McCain accused him on the Senate floor of “working for Vladimir Putin.” This quote got a lot of play in the political press, who love that sort of thing, but the consensus seemed to be that McCain was using hyperbolic language to make his point.
But what if this was a bad take? Few members of Congress were more antagonistic toward Putin than John McCain. Perhaps when he called Rand Paul a Russian asset, on the floor of the US Senate, he actually meant it.
Since the day John McCain called him out, Rand Paul has been a veritable lobbyist for the Kremlin. On matters large and small, Paul has supported Moscow’s positions. He’s pushed for open and active dialogue with the nation that engaged in cyberwarfare against us. He’s argued for the lifting of sanctions on Russian individuals close to Putin. He was one of few politicians who defended Trump after his disastrous showing in Helsinki, when Trump more or less kissed the ring of the Russian dictator. He joined Trump in seeking the revocation of a security clearance on John O. Brennan, after the former CIA director denounced the Helsinki summit as “nothing short of treasonous.” In recent weeks, Paul has held with the Kremlin’s position on Syria. RT, the Russian state news network, lavishes praise on him, as Julia Davis reports:
The dissemination of Putinist propaganda is bad enough. But let us not forget that Rand Paul has served as a Trump/Russia intermediary, on one occasion flying to Moscow to deliver a handwritten letter from the president to Putin.
“The letter emphasized the importance of further engagement in various areas including countering terrorism, enhancing legislative dialogue and resuming cultural exchanges,” Paul said, as if Trump were capable of such nuanced statesmanship.
As Ariel Cohen writes at the American Interest, Paul apparently botched this simple courier job:
The White House was furious with the Senator going off the script and implying that [Rand Paul] had carried a confidential message from Trump to Putin. A fuming senior U.S. administration official told me that the Senator wrote the letter himself and that he insisted that U.S. Embassy personnel not accompany him to his meetings with Russian officials. This follows a pattern established by Trump in Helsinki in July, where only a translator was present at his two-hour-long meeting with Putin.
Wherefore all of this secrecy and frantic dissembling?
To continue the Lord of the Rings analogy, Rand Paul journeyed halfway around the world to deliver a missive from Gollum to Sauron. Was this mission simply quixotic? Or overtly seditious?
Rand Paul visited Moscow on 6 August 2018. His stated reason for making the trip: engagement. “The world is a complicated place, we are in close proximity to Russia in Syria and other places, and I think it would be a very big mistake not to have open lines of communication,” he said — preposterously, given the cozy relationship between Trump and Putin.
Even at the time, the stated mission was preposterous. Here is the lead paragraph of Ariel Cohen’s excellent piece in the American Interest:
As the sanctions war between the United States and Russia escalates, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has embarked on a bizarre mission to pull U.S.-Russian relations out of the tailspin caused by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, intervention in U.S. elections, cyberattacks on the U.S. energy infrastructure, and alleged use of nerve agents in the United Kingdom.
None of this deterred Rand Paul. “Engagement,” he explained, “is vital to our national security and peace around the world.” It was in service to “engagement,” in fact, that the trip was paid for by the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank underwritten by the Koch brothers.
But it was whom Paul met with in Moscow that should raise eyebrows. He engaged in talks with Sergei Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States — the same Sergei Kislyak who in 2016 held illicit meetings with numerous members of the Trump campaign (Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, Carter Page, and Mike Flynn, to name a few), and who was photographed guffawing with Trump in the Oval Office. What sort of “engagement” did Paul seek from Kislyak?
Moscow’s point person for the meeting was Konstantin Kosachev, a senator at the Federation Council — Russia’s Senate — and the chair of its Foreign Affairs Committee. Kosachev is a staunch ally of Vladimir Putin, and was among the Russian politicians placed on the US sanctions list of 6 April 2018.
There was plenty of bonhomie between Paul and Kosachev. Here is the RT write-up of the meeting — in other words, the Putin-approved version:
Kosachev said that while no plans have been finalized, “certain specific subjects in the development of this co-operation” had been addressed during Paul’s visit, adding that he hoped a meeting between the Senate and the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs could be held before the end of the year….
The Kentucky senator has been an outspoken proponent for engagement with Moscow who voiced support for Donald Trump’s decision to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month. Paul said last week that his goal in coming to Moscow was to find “common ground with [Russian] leaders and help prevent further, unnecessary escalation of tensions.”
When he returned from Moscow, Paul went golfing with Trump, lobbying the president to allow Kosachev and other sanctioned Russian politicians to visit the United States. The visit almost certainly will not take place. This is welcome news, because Kosachev is not a new character in the Trump/Russia story.
In his intelligence report of 20 October 2016, Christopher Steele, the former MI6 Moscow bureau chief, wrote about a meeting in Prague between Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen and his Russian counterparts that allegedly took place in late August or early September of 2016. The purpose of that meeting, Steele explains, was to “clean up the mess left behind by Western media revelations” of Russian ties to Paul Manafort and Carter Page. Part of this clean-up, Steele reports, was to arrange for cash payments to be made to Russian-organized hackers.
The Prague meeting, which Michael Cohen has steadfastly denied attending as recently as last week, is a potential smoking gun of Trump/Russia. If what Steele describes took place, the rendezvous would constitute clear and undeniable coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The Putin surrogate who was responsible for the coordination of this meeting was at the time the head of Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian organization involved with foreign aid, with offices in major cities around the world, Prague included: Konstantin Kosachev.
Yes: that Konstantin Kosachev.
Again: the Putin surrogate who allegedly set up the key meeting between Trump’s people and the Russians two years ago is the same guy Rand Paul met with in Moscow this past summer.
It could be a coincidence, of course. Maybe Rand Paul had a change of heart about President Gollum after a few months of watching MAGA in action. Maybe Paul, like Neville Chamberlain before him, really does believe that open engagement with our sworn enemies is a good thing. Maybe Paul is trumpeting the Kremlin line because he ideologically agrees with it. Maybe Paul has forgiven Kosachev for his role in subverting our election. Maybe John McCain was joking when he accused Paul of working for Vladimir Putin.
Before we can write off Rand Paul as a useful idiot rather than an active Russian asset, however, we need to better understand the relationship between the Senator from Kentucky and Konstantin Kosachev. What did they discuss in Moscow? What was in that letter? Why is Paul so eager to have him visit the United States?
And: when and where did Paul and Kosachev first meet?
Steele says that Michael Cohen was not the only American to meet with Kosachev’s people in Prague in late August, 2016. Two or three others accompanied him. Rand Paul’s last public event that year was a farm bureau breakfast in Kentucky on 25 August 2016. The Senate did not reconvene until after Labor Day. Where in the world was Rand Paul during that time? It’s not clear from his Twitter feed or his website. When I asked him via Twitter, he did not respond.
To be clear, I’m not accusing Paul of meeting with Kosachev in Prague in 2016. No doubt he has a solid alibi for that entire period of time. But given that he was totally cool with delivering a handwritten letter from Trump to Putin two years later, when Mueller was openly investigating Trump’s ties to Russia, I’d like to see him testify under oath to the contrary before I rule out the possibility.
When John McCain accuses a sitting US Senator of working for Vladimir Putin, I take him at his word.