Why Did 8-Republican U.S. Senators Spend July 4th In Moscow?

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his visit to Moscow in July 2018.Screengrab/AP Archive/YouTube

A delegation of eight GOP senators visited the Kremlin over America's Independence Day last year—the question is, why?

Eight Republican senators opted to spend the Fourth of July in Moscow last year, visiting a top U.S. adversary on the day of American independence and despite Russia’s denials of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

According to those senators — which included Richard Shelby (AL), Steve Daines (MT), John Hoeven (ND), Ron Johnson (WI), John Kennedy (LA), Jerry Moran (KS), John Thune (SD), and Kay Granger (TX) — Russian meddling was atop their list of talking points as they met with their counterparts in the Duma.

Prior to heading out, members of the delegation promised “to be tough with Russian officials ahead of the president’s visit, especially on matters of election interference,” The Washington Post noted at the time.

But they struck a conciliatory tone once there: The point of their visit, Shelby stressed to the Duma leader, was to “strive for a better relationship” with Moscow, not “accuse Russia of this or that or so forth.”

And it seemed not all were in agreement upon their return as to the nature of discussions or in reaching their conclusions:

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin returned from a trip to Russia earlier this month with some new perspectives on the US sanctions on Moscow after its annexation of Crimea and meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“We need to take a look at sanctions — are they actually changing Russia’s behavior?” Johnson said on Friday. “And right now, unfortunately, I don’t think they’re particularly working from that standpoint.”

Johnson appeared to walk back some of his earlier comments and that he was not suggesting to weaken the sanctions but rather, “we need to take a look at what works.”

The delegation’s reception in Russia was somewhat chilly, with state media deriding the effort, the Post noted:

On Russian state television, presenters and guests mocked the U.S. congressional delegation for appearing to put a weak foot forward, noting how the message of tough talk they promised in Washington “changed a bit” by the time they got to Moscow.

“We need to look down at them and say: You came because you needed to, not because we did,” Igor Korotchenko, a Russian military expert, said on a talk show on state-run television.

It remains unclear precisely what the Republican was doing in Russia or why those lawmakers felt so inclined to set up their meetings — but their visit was not well-received by many at home.

“Cannot believe GOP, once the party that stood strong against Soviets & only a decade ago sought to democratize the Middle East, is now surrendering so foolishly to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Kremlin’s kleptocracy — only two years ­after Russia interfered in U.S. election,” tweeted Clint Watts, an information warfare specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and frequent featured expert before congressional panels examining Russian influence operations.

“Russians wooing with a shopworn song — repugnant as nails on a blackboard,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in a Twitter post in response to the delegation’s trip. “They are enemies and adversaries, attacking us.”

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Have republicans become traitors to democracy