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Don't ignore Vladimir Putin's role in U.S. dysfunction

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an annual

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an annual VTB Capital "Russia Calling!" Investment Forum in Moscow, Russia on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

 On the final day of testimony in the first phase of the House impeachment inquiry, the main witness forced Congress and the nation to take a step back. Much of the country has been consumed by the probe into President Donald Trump's role in pressuring Ukraine's president to pursue politically motivated investigations on Trump's behalf. The details, like those in any good whodunit, have at times been riveting.

But Fiona Hill forced the spotlight onto the shadow that hovers over the entire affair — Russia, and its president, Vladimir Putin.

Hill, a former National Security Council official and longtime respected intelligence expert on Russia, bluntly told Trump's Republican defenders on the House Intelligence Committee that their insistence that it was Ukraine and not Russia that meddled in the 2016 presidential was nuts. She made clear that this imaginary interference conveniently provides Trump with a justification for wanting Ukraine to investigate his political opponents. Hill's message was one GOP lawmakers and Americans everywhere needed to hear. 

"This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," Hill said, and added a reminder that Russia's interference at Putin's direction has been established beyond dispute.

The tenaciousness with which Republicans have pursued this fantasy is evidence of the dark hole into which Trump has dragged them. Before his surprise victory in 2016, this would have been unimaginable. This is the party that was synonymous, and rightly so, with wariness toward Russia. The party that wanted, and rightly so, to resist Russian, and before that, Soviet, aggression on all fronts and to remain steadfast against its encroachments. The party that viewed Moscow, and rightly so, as an abiding threat to America and democracy everywhere.

Hill, a nonpartisan actor who nevertheless understood the stage on which she appeared, pleaded with Republicans to "please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests."

Those goals are familiar to anyone who understands Putin — to weaken America, to diminish our role in the world, and to neutralize our ability to push back against Russian initiatives, like reasserting its dominance over Ukraine. Now Russia is gearing up to meddle again in the 2020 campaign, and time, as Hill warned, is running out to stop it.

After days of congressional inquisitors haggling with a parade of mostly career civil servants over plot points, Hill got closer to motive, the reason for Trump's behavior, the strangeness of his affection for Putin.

These are scary times in America, as we go to war over truth and tear ourselves apart. But that's in Putin's script, too. When we're fighting against ourselves, we cannot fight against him. He found a vessel in Trump, a vehicle for his most audacious KGB-style operation, a man willing to assist in the degradation of our institutions. From there it's but a short step to the scene when Americans lose faith in their own democracy.

The inquiry on Capitol Hill is about the impeachment of the president. But that's only part of what's at stake for the nation. — The editorial board

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