House Republicans break with intelligence community on Russia
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee reached an opposite conclusion Monday from the intelligence community they oversee, announcing that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not trying to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election.
The Republicans also said they found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and that they are shutting down their yearlong investigation.
Their viewpoint — which perfectly aligns with Trump’s view on election meddling — will be met with sharp disagreement by Democrats and is bound to inflame partisan tensions on a committee that’s been beleaguered by partisanship throughout its Russia probe.
The Republican decision to end the House Russia investigation comes as special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe appears to be accelerating.
Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican leading the Russia investigation, said Monday that the committee had concluded its interviews for the Russia investigation, and the Republican staff had prepared a 150-page draft report that they would give to Democrats to review on Tuesday morning.
The committee Republicans said Russians did meddle in the elections to sow chaos, but they disagreed with the intelligence community’s assessment that they sought to help Trump.
“We found no evidence of collusion, and so we found perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings,” Conaway said. “We found no evidence of any collusion of anything people were actually doing other than taking a meeting they shouldn’t have taken or just inadvertently being in the same building.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, slammed the Republican decision to end the investigation.
“While the majority members of our committee have indicated for some time that they have been under great pressure to end the investigation, it is nonetheless another tragic milestone for this Congress, and represents yet another capitulation to the executive branch,” Schiff said in a statement. “By ending its oversight role in the only authorized investigation in the House, the Majority has placed the interests of protecting the President over protecting the country, and history will judge its actions harshly.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee is forging ahead with its investigation into Russian election meddling. But Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr told CNN on Monday that he had not yet seen any evidence of collusion or to substantiate the intelligence community’s assessment that Putin was trying to help Trump win, though he said the committee was still investigating and had not reached conclusions on either matter.
“I’ve read a lot about it, but I haven’t seen any” evidence of collusion, Burr said.
Asked about repeated efforts by Russians to coordinate with the Trump campaign, Burr said: “It’s collusion on part of the Russians, I guess, but not the Trump campaign.”
Burr would not say if he agreed with the Intelligence Community’s assessment that Putin tried to help Trump, calling it simply “a 30-day snapshot.”
In the House, Democrats say there are still scores of witnesses the committee should call, and argue that Republicans have failed to use subpoenas to obtain documents and require witnesses to answer questions that are central to the investigation.
Conaway told reporters that he feels the committee has investigated all avenues it needed to probe, and he argued that the panel would not have been able to obtain the information Democrats were seeking had they gone the route of subpoenaing witnesses or trying to hold them in contempt.
Conaway, for instance, said the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between senior campaign officials and a Russian lawyer where dirt on Clinton was promised was “ill-advised.” But he said that the committee did not turn up any evidence of collusion, arguing the promoter who organized the meeting had exaggerated what the Russians would provide.
The committee’s report will conclude that they agree with 98% of the intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, according to a committee aide.
But the panel’s Republicans take issue with the key finding that Putin was trying get Trump elected.
“Bottom line: Russians did commit active measures against our elections in ’16, and we think they’ll do that in the future,” Conaway said. “It’s clear they sowed discord in our elections. … But we couldn’t establish the same conclusions the CIA did that they specifically wanted to help Trump.”
A summary of the committee’s initial findings states that the committee found “concurrence with the Intelligence Community Assessment’s judgments, except with respect to Putin’s supposed preference for candidate Trump.”
James Clapper, who was Director of National Intelligence in the Obama administration when the assessment was released, said he disagreed, noting that US intelligence found Putin had deep animus toward Clinton and saw Trump as more friendly toward Russia.
“I obviously disagree. The four intelligence chiefs all agreed with the assessment, which was based on highly classified intelligence,” Clapper told CNN. “This is a case of people living in their own reality bubbles when we can’t agree on basic facts.”
The committee’s Russia investigation included interviews with 73 witnesses and a review of roughly 300,000 pages of documents, Conaway said. They included key figures like Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, but Democrats have argued that those witnesses failed to fully provide documents or answer important questions.
But Conaway said that Republicans would not hold Bannon in contempt of Congress for failing to answer questions beyond what was authorized by the White House, despite threats to do so just several days ago. Conaway said such efforts — and issuing subpoenas to other witnesses as Democrats demanded — would be a fruitless endeavor.
“You use subpoenas when you think you can actually get something from them,” Conaway said. “We’re not too confident that the subpoena process would get us any more information than we have.”
Conaway said he hopes that Democrats can work with Republicans on the draft report, and he wants to take their feedback as they shape the final report. He declined to put a timeline on when the report would be made public, as the committee intends to submit it to the intelligence community for declassification beforehand.
Conaway said Democrats will agree with some elements of the report, such as the social media interference, but he acknowledged they’d take issue with others.
It’s widely expected Democrats will draft their own report that argues a case for collusion, as well as spells out all the avenues the committee did not investigate.
In addition to subpoenas and witnesses, Democrats have long raised issues about looking into Trump’s finances, something the committee had not probed. Conaway said he saw no “link” between Trump’s finances and the committee’s investigation, and he did not want to go on a fishing expedition.
The Republican report will also say how “anti-Trump research” made its way from Russian sources to the Clinton campaign through the opposition research dossier on Trump and Russia. Conaway, however, stopped short of saying there was “collusion” between Clinton’s campaign and the Russians, something the President has alleged.
The end of the Russia interviews is only the latest battleground on the House Intelligence Committee, which has been consumed by partisan fights for the better part of a year, from Chairman Devin Nunes’ role in the investigation and more recently over competing memos about alleged surveillance abuses at the FBI during the Obama administration.
Several Republicans on the panel have been signaling for several weeks now that they’re ready for the Russia investigation to wrap up, arguing that Democrats are trying to extend the probe into the campaign season.
“To me, I don’t see anything else that’s out there that hasn’t been explored,” Rep. Pete King, a New York Republican, told CNN last week.
But Democrats say the committee has raced through its final interviews, while allowing witnesses to pick and choose which questions they answer.
The committee issued a subpoena to former White House chief strategist Bannon in January, but in his return testimony he still did not answer questions about his time in the White House.
Democrats also sought subpoenas for the committee’s last two witnesses, outgoing White House communications director Hope Hicks and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, but Republicans did not issue them.
“There are a number of steps that I think any credible investigator would say, ‘These need to be done,’ and we still hope that they will be,” Schiff said following Lewandowski’s interview last week.
Conaway downplayed the partisan tensions on the committee, saying he and Schiff have “powered through” the issues. He noted that since he took over the Russia probe for Nunes in April 2017, he has not visited the White House or spoken to the President.
In the Senate, the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees are still investigating Russia’s alleged 2016 election meddling.
There are still two committees in the Senate that are investigating Russia’s 2016 election meddling: the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
Still, only the Senate Intelligence Committee appears to be pushing forward at full speed on its probe, as Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley is preparing to release transcripts of the committee’s interviews with participants of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting — a potential sign the committee is done investigating that matter.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to put out recommendations and hold a hearing on election security this month. Burr has said he’s separating out the election security issues for the 2018 primary season while the committee continues to investigate questions about collusion and the 2016 election.