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Here’s how Thomas Massie became the most Kremlin-friendly member of the House

He's dined with Maria Butina and voted against Russian sanctions: the Kentucky Republican picks up where Dana Rohrabacher left off.

Rep. Thomas Massie has charted a lonely path as the most Kremlin-friendly member of the House of Representatives this year. CREDIT: BILL CLARK / GETTY
Rep. Thomas Massie has charted a lonely path as the most Kremlin-friendly member of the House of Representatives this year. CREDIT: BILL CLARK / GETTY

For most of the last decade, former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) held the title of the most Kremlin-friendly member of the House of Representatives. But with Rohrabacher’s loss in his reelection bid last year, a new contender has laid claim to the crown.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), first elected to represent Kentucky’s 4th District in 2012, may not be as bombastic as Rohrabacher or have as many colorful anecdotes about drunkenly arm-wrestling Russian President Vladimir Putin as the former California congressman. But he’s distinguished himself in the House for pushing and voting for Russia-friendly measures, time and again.

Massie did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for an interview.

Widely considered one of the most prominent libertarian members of Congress, the Kentucky congressman made news last month as one of the few Republicans to vote against President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration, describing Trump’s national emergency plans as “overreach.” 

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But despite his recent vote against the president’s pet project, Massie has taken plenty of opportunities to lavish praise on Trump, from backing the president’s abrupt foreign policy decisions — including when Trump unexpectedly announced American troops would be leaving Syria — to claiming that Trump “probably saved the GOP from itself” when the president signed the 2017 tax bill.

Most notably, Massie has taken steps to slow criticism of Russia, as well as deflect questions about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia, along the way.

Massie has regurgitated many of the conspiracy theories Trump has pushed to discredit the ongoing Mueller investigation. He has repeated the baseless claim that the FBI secretly spied on Trump’s 2016 campaign, playing up the evidence-free notion that the campaign’s attempts at Russian collusion were, in reality, traps laid by the Obama administration.

There’s no evidence the Obama administration attempted to trick the Trump campaign into colluding with Russian agents, but it’s a line Trump routinely pushes to distract from questions about his own ties with Russia. In an editorial following Massie’s statement, the Lexington Herald Leader wrote that Massie’s “feverish parroting of Trump’s unsubstantiated claims” was “disturbing.”

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It’s unclear whether Massie believes Russia interfered in the 2016 election, even though America’s own intelligence community, along with any number of journalists and academics, has thoroughly established those interference efforts.

In a 2017 survey of Cincinnati-area politicians, The Cincinnati Enquirer asked whether they accepted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russian hackers stole Democratic emails in order to aid Trump’s election. According to the Enquirer, Massie “did not directly answer,” but later in the interview claimed the investigation into Russia’s hacking was “a political effort to de-legitimize the incoming administration,” a line often peddled by the president himself. 

Reliable votes

And then there are Massie’s recent votes in Congress, which see the congressman consistently siding with Russia’s interests.

In 2017, Massie was one of only four members of the House who voted against a resolution backing American commitment to NATO. As The Cincinnati Enquirer reported, Massie claimed that the “move to expand NATO in Eastern Europe is unwise and unaffordable.” Massie further pointed to Trump’s tepid opposition to NATO as reason enough for his own opposition. (Despite the president’s rhetoric, the Trump administration has overseen NATO’s steady growth, with North Macedonia set to join the alliance in the near future.)

One month later, Massie was one of only three representatives who voted against a new sanctions package against Russia, as well as against Iran and North Korea, a package that even Rohrabacher supported.

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At the time, much of Massie’s opposition was attributed to his libertarian bent, and he voiced concerns about cost control and limiting federal responsibilities. But his recent voting record has raised more concerns than answers.

Last week, the House voted on a bill honoring slain Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in Moscow in 2015. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), came with a number of provisions, including calling for an investigation into Nemtsov’s death and sanctions against those responsible. The bill also condemned Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin for persecuting political opponents.

Russian opposition figures like Vladimir Kara-Murza praised the bill as something that would “bring at least a measure of accountability for the organizers of Russia’s most high-profile political assassination.” And it passed nearly unanimously, moving on to the Senate. Massie’s was the lone vote against the measure.

Soon after, the House voted on a bill sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) that reiterated America’s position of not recognizing Russian sovereignty over Crimea. While Trump has questioned this position in the past, he has not formally decided to recognize Russian claims.

The illegal 2014 annexation, part of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, shattered relations between Moscow and Western democracies, not least because it led to the first forced annexation in Europe since the Second World War. (The only countries recognizing Crimea as part of Russia are Venezuela, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, and Syria.) Relations have since soured further, between increasing sanctions, tensions in Syria, and widespread Russian interference efforts in the U.S. 2016 election.

The Crimea-related bill likewise passed easily, with broad support from both parties. “There is a bipartisan and international consensus that many of us have worked hard to establish in combating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and we heard that consensus loud and clear from both Democrats and Republicans,” Connolly said in a statement obtained by ThinkProgress. (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is currently running for president, was one of only three representatives listed as “not voting” on both bills. She did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions.)

Massie was only House member to vote against the measure.

Dinners with friends

As ThinkProgress and others previously reported, Massie attended a lavish February 2017 dinner alongside Maria Butina, the Russian agent who infiltrated the National Rifle Association (NRA) and is potentially facing years in prison for serving as an unregistered foreign agent. The dinner in Washington also brought Massie into direct contact with Butina’s handler, Alexander Torshin, a former Russian official now sanctioned by the United States and accused of overseeing massive money laundering operations in Europe, among other alleged misdeeds.

The four-hour feast, which Rohrabacher also attended, was organized by Rockefeller scion George O’Neill Jr. As TIME reported, the Americans sat on one side of the table, and the Russians on the other. “The better to hear, the better to toast,” Butina said at the time. 

Prior to the dinner, per Bloomberg, Russian attendees were provided a guest list of the Americans in attendance, including head-shots and brief descriptors of their views. (It’s still unclear who put the list together.) Massie was noted as being a figure “in favor of Russian-American dialogue.”

The dinner was apparently a success. “Our delegation cannot stop chatting about your wonderful dinner,” Butina later wrote to O’Neill. “My dearest President has received ‘the message’ about your group initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians.”

Massie hasn’t publicly commented on the dinner, or how he ended up feasting with Torshin and Butina shortly after Trump’s inauguration. (Butina also networked with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin before the election.) While Massie’s spokesperson confirmed to Bloomberg that the congressman attended, it’s unclear if Massie also joined other similar dinners that O’Neill said he planned to host.

Massie has publicly gone to bat for Butina, despite the evidence against her. Shortly after Butina’s 2018 arrest, Massie penned an op-ed in RealClearPolitics defending Butina and denigrating the “current hysteria” surrounding questions about Russian interference efforts. In the article, Massie described Butina as “a former Russian graduate student” who “has not been accused of harming anyone.” Massie claimed the evidence in the indictment against Butina — who has since pleaded guilty — was “thin.”

The piece, which was promoted by Russian propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik, remains perhaps the foremost defense of Butina in American media. It’s also the clearest distillation to date of Massie’s views on — and denial of — Russian interference.

To Massie, it’s time to move on. As he wrote in the op-ed, “It’s time to end the obsession with Russia.”