Vladimir Putin might have wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 presidential election, and he might not have; we just can’t know for sure. That’s the view House Republicans will put forward in a report set to be released in the coming weeks, according to one of the report’s authors.
Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican responsible for overseeing the House intelligence committee’s investigation into Russian election meddling, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that his committee will challenge the way the intelligence community came to the conclusion that Putin wanted Trump to win. But he added that it’s still very possible that Putin was, in fact, pulling for Trump.
“We believe that the assessment of that issue by the few analysts who did it did not use the proper tradecraft,” Conaway said.
“Only Putin knows for sure what he was trying to do,” he added.
It’s a much more nuanced position than a one-page summary of the committee’s forthcoming report indicated. Last night, the committee posted a document saying its report would concur “with the intelligence community assessment’s judgments, except with respect to Putin’s supposed preference for candidate Trump.”
Conaway said his report does not rule out the possibility that the Kremlin wanted Trump to win in 2016. He said the committee will also release a second report on the intelligence community assessment—released on Jan. 6, 2017—of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“If the glass is half empty or the glass is half full, there’s still the same amount of water in the glass,” he continued. “So if Putin did things to hurt Hillary that helped Trump—OK. If he did things to hurt Hillary to make sure that if she was president, she didn’t have as effective a presidency, you can interpret it either way you want to.”
The committee’s top Democrat, meanwhile, took a dramatically different tack. Rep. Adam Schiff on Tuesday released a lengthy document detailing all the avenues of inquiry committee Democrats say are untapped. Schiff listed a litany of witnesses they have not interviewed, including White House adviser Stephen Miller, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, ex-campaign adviser Sam Nunberg, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Republican super-lawyer Cleta Mitchell.
Schiff’s write-up also said the committee had “only begun to explore” potential questionable ties between the Trump Organization, Deutsche Bank, and the Kremlin.
“Did the Russian government, through business figures close to the Kremlin, seek to court Donald Trump and launder funds through the Trump Organization; and did candidate Trump’s financial exposure via Deutsche Bank or other private loans constitute a point of leverage that Russia may have exploited and may still be using?” Schiff wrote.
Earlier Tuesday, Rep. Trey Gowdy, another Republican on the House’s intelligence committee, said in a statement that it was “clear, based on the evidence, Russia had disdain for Secretary Clinton and was motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm her candidacy.”
Conaway took a slightly less definitive view. “In terms of whether Putin wanted to help or not, each person gets to look at the evidence for themselves and decide for themselves,” he continued. “Really, only Putin knows for sure what he wanted to do.”
But not all the committee members are downplaying their one-pager. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said the Russians may have just wanted to sow chaos without helping Trump.
“There’s no real evidence that they thought Trump would do better for them than Hillary,” he said.
The committee’s initial, quasi-cryptic statement about Russians’ views of a Trump presidency generated widespread incredulity from people in the intelligence community. One intelligence officer told The Daily Beast the implied claim—that there was no reason to think the Kremlin wanted Trump rather than Clinton—was “crazy.”
“It seems like they’re not being objective at all,” the officer said. “There’s a clear bias and a narrative that’s trying to fit their boss’s agenda, meaning Nunes.”
John McLaughlin, who formerly headed the CIA, said the committee’s internal fighting and partisan dissolution was “a sad thing.”
“Fundamentally, the American public has to have confidence, given that they’re overseeing the most sensitive and secret activities of the United States. The public has to have confidence that that’s done in a responsible way, and they’re not approaching it in a win/lose mode between the two parties. And I think the Republicans have just thrown that away by doing it this way.”
And Michael Allen, who was the committee’s staff director under Republican Chairman Mike Rogers, said Republicans have set up a difficult hurdle for themselves by taking on the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s aims.
“They’re going to have a high bar to clear to convincingly debunk the intelligence community assessment,” he said.
“I have a feeling that the intelligence community, in their unclassified assessment, are basing things on things that are highly classified and so that’s why I say they have a steep hill to climb to overcome or otherwise debunk,” he added. “But we’ll see.”