Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
To hear Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee tell it, you’d think the nearly 1,000-page report the committee released today exonerated President Trump and his campaign.
The report, write six of the GOP members, “exhaustively reviews the counterintelligence threats and vulnerabilities to the 2016, but never explicitly states the critical fact: the Committee found no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government in its efforts to meddle in the election” (emphasis in original). The current acting chairman of the committee, Marco Rubio, went further in a statement of his own: “We can say, without any hesitation, that the Committee found absolutely no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 election.”
Really? Absolutely no evidence? Sen. Rubio can say that without even a moment’s hesitation?
Rubio should take a moment to hesitate over his own report. Reading the whole thing would, admittedly, take a while. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect him and his colleagues to have a rudimentary understanding of the findings section at the beginning, which is a kind of executive summary.
What Senate Republicans are saying about their own report comes perilously close to simple lying.
Here are some of the committee’s own findings about Trump campaign engagement with the Russian electoral interference—findings subscribed to by each and every one of the senators who protest that they did not find “collusion”:
- “The Committee found that Manafort’s presence on the Campaign and proximity to Trump created opportunities for Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign. Taken as a whole, Manafort’s high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services ... represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”
- “While [Russian military intelligence] and WikiLeaks were releasing hacked documents, the Trump Campaign sought to maximize the impact of those leaks to aid Trump’s electoral prospects. Staff on the Trump Campaign sought advance notice about WikiLeaks releases, created messaging strategies to promote and share the materials in anticipation of and following their release, and encouraged further leaks. The Trump Campaign publicly undermined the attribution of the hack-and-leak campaign to Russia and was indifferent to whether it and WikiLeaks were furthering a Russian election interference effort.”
- “Trump and senior Campaign officials sought to obtain advance information about WikiLeaks’s planned releases through Roger Stone.”
- “The Committee further found that [George] Papadopoulos’s efforts introduced him to several individuals that raise counterintelligence concerns, due to their associations with individuals from hostile foreign governments, as well as actions these individuals undertook. The Committee assesses that Papadopoulos was not a witting cooptee of the Russian intelligence services, but nonetheless presented a prime intelligence target and potential vector for malign Russian influence.”
It goes on. And on. And on.
I have only scanned the full document so far and don’t pretend to have read it thoroughly. Nor do I have any desire to argue with Rubio over what patterns of conduct do and do not constitute “collusion”—a term with no adequately specific meaning to be of any use. Life is short.
I will, however, venture three initial observations on the report.
First, the Senate Republicans—however they may characterize their findings—have knifed the president in the back. They have, as an initial matter, validated the major findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. They have, in important respects, gone beyond them; they are more aggressive in some of their findings than Mueller was. For example, they assert confidently that Konstantin Kilimnik, the business associate of one-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, is a Russian intelligence officer, whereas Mueller did not go that far. Where Mueller was confined to that which he could prove in court beyond a reasonable doubt, the Intelligence Committee could be a little laxer in reporting its findings. It could also focus on counterintelligence questions, where Mueller by regulation and perhaps by preference chose to confine himself to the criminal law.
The result is that where Mueller would often stop short of certain conclusions because they could not be “established”—meaning proved with admissible evidence beyond a reasonable doubt—the Senate Intelligence Committee report is more open to findings on bases short of criminal law standards.
One of them involves what we might colloquially call “collusion.” Did Manafort participate in some material respect in the Russian hacking and dumping operation? The Senate Intelligence Committee, notwithstanding Rubio’s and his colleagues’ protestations, concludes that the matter is unclear. “Manafort’s involvement with the GRU hack-and-leak operation is largely unknown,” the committee writes.
“Kilimnik was in sustained contact with Manafort before, during and after the GRU cyber and influence operations, but the Committee did not obtain reliable, direct evidence that Kilimnik and Manafort discussed the GRU hack-and-leak operation.”
“Two pieces of information, however, raise the possibility of Manafort’s potential connection to the hack-and-leak operations.”
The two pieces of information in question are substantially redacted, so it’s impossible to tell how suggestive they might be. But it’s hard to read passages like this one and come away thinking that the major takeaway here is that there is absolutely no evidence of collusion.
Yet that is the point Republican senators want you to take away regarding their findings. It’s as though every Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee had a hand in writing volume I of the Mueller report but wanted to make sure the president wasn’t upset at them about their own findings. The result is a set of highly suggestive, even devastating, sections and hundreds upon hundreds of pages about the conduct of the president’s campaign, staff, transition and family. But the Republican members have stamped the report with a big red “No Collusion Found!” stamp, as though that will change the meaning of the words they have written.
Second, they have also knifed Attorney General William Barr in the back. Barr has been on a year-long campaign to discredit the Mueller findings and argue that the Russia investigation should never have taken place. He has disparaged the whole thing as “political spying” and intimated darkly that some conspiracy lies behind it all.
Yet here is the unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee calling “grave” the counterintelligence threat posed by the Trump campaign chairman, calling another adviser “a prime intelligence target and potential vector for malign Russian influence,” and describing the candidate himself as seeking advance notice of the disclosure of Russian-stolen emails by WikiLeaks. It is one thing for Mueller to make such findings. It is quite another for the Republican senators themselves to do so—all the while acting as though they are not accusing Trump of anything untoward.
How exactly could the FBI not investigate such things? If and when Barr comes forward with his theory of how the FBI’s Russia investigation was born in some kind of original sin, he will now be arguing not just with former FBI Director James Comey and with Robert Mueller and the Justice Department inspector general. He’ll also be arguing with all of the Republican members of the Intelligence Committee—all of whom have now publicly taken the position at great length, and in neurotic detail, that the Trump campaign was replete with counterintelligence vulnerabilities.
As Pete Strzok put it:
1/ Today’s bipartisan SSCI report - and each Republican Senator signatory - conclusively debunk Barr’s mendacious assertions that the FBI’s investigations were based on “a very thin, slender reed,” which “should have been obvious to anyone, that there was nothing there.”— Peter Strzok (@petestrzok) August 19, 2020