Before traveling to Russia in 2015 for a dinner hosted by a propaganda network, retired Gen. Michael Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., went to the home of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak for a private meeting.
That was just one of several findings in a new, long-awaited report from House intelligence committee Republicans that was released on Friday morning. The report, which is more than 250 pages long, has been overshadowed by the often-acrimonious process that marked its construction. And the findings will likely become fodder for additional partisan bickering rather than a helpful addition to the historical record of the 2016 election.
The report does take the Russian government to task for meddling in that contest. But it questions the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that the Kremlin wanted Trump to win.
Shortly after its release, President Donald Trump touted the report on Twitter. But the report includes a stern criticism of his campaign for praising Wikileaks and a debunking of a favorite talking point among the president’s defenders: The report confirms that the investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin began with then-foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos––not with the so-called Steele dossier.
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an enterprise counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign after receiving information related to Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos,” the report says. It notes that Papadopoulos met in London with people who claimed to be linked to the Kremlin, and tried to set up meetings between Kremlin officials and people on the campaign.
Because of the Papadopoulos investigation, the report continues, the FBI started an individual counterintelligence probe into Carter Page––who was “already a subject of interest for the FBI.” Page, a foreign policy adviser of sorts to the Trump campaign, was in touch with “known Russian intelligence officers” and helped the FBI prosecute Russian intelligence officials. The report also looks at the use of the Steele dossier, which Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid to produce, in the FBI’s application for a warrant to surveil Page. That fact has been a central focus for the president’s defenders, some of whom try to argue that the entire Russian investigation was a set-up by the Clinton campaign.
While critics of the president have pointed to the actions of Page and Papadopoulos as evidence of the Trump campaign trying to establish some form of contact with Russian officials, Republicans on the House Intel committee came to a different conclusion. The pro-Russia views of those respective advisers is not seen as an extension of Trump’s publicly professed affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin but as the result of the conservative foreign policy establishment’s shunning of Trump.
“The Republican national security establishment's opposition to candidate Trump created opportunities for two less-experienced individuals with pro-Russia views to serve as campaign advisors,” the report reads, citing Page and Papadopoulos.
To bolster this claim, the report references an open letter to Trump that was published in the national security journal War On The Rocks, in which top Republican former foreign policy officials said Trump, as president, would “act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world.”
The report’s authors swipe at those former officials by characterizing them as “self-described ‘GOP National Security Leaders’" and use the publication of that letter as evidence that the campaign had to “turn elsewhere for support.” The report fails to mention, however, that authors of the open letter shunned Trump explicitly because of his pro-Russia tendencies. In a list of objections, the GOP security heavyweights cited Trump’s “admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin is unacceptable for the leader of the world’s greatest democracy” as a specific cause for concern.
The House Intel report also downplays the outreach that Alexander Nix, the now-suspended CEO of the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, made to Wikileaks during the 2016 campaign (overtures first reported by The Daily Beast). The report says that, at the time, Cambridge Analytica had not started working for the Trump campaign. It does not note the firm’s close connections to the powerful Mercer family, who generously funded an outside super PAC that boosted Trump’s campaign. It also does not note that Cambridge Analytica subsequently worked for the Mercers’ super PAC.
The report notes that Donald Trump Jr. exchanged DMs with Wikileaks on Twitter, and criticizes the campaign for praising Wikileaks.
“The Committee also found the Trump campaign's periodic praise for and
communications with Wikileaks-a hostile foreign organization-to be highly objectionable and inconsistent with U.S. national security interests,” the report says.
Democrats on the House Intel Committee have universally objected to both the report’s conclusions and the timing of its release. Democratic members have argued that more interviews were needed to get a fuller picture of Russia’s role in the election. They also have been incensed at the willingness of the report’s authors to take witnesses at their word when they say they didn’t collude with the Kremlin.
According to the report, none of the witnesses who testified before the committee said they had evidence of collusion. Jared Kushner told the committee that the campaign “did not collude, cooperate, whatever other 'C' words you used, with any foreign governments.”
“When asked directly, none of the interviewed witnesses provided evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” the report says.
In a statement, the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), said Republicans ignored “evidence of collusion” that was in “plain sight.”
“In fact, we found evidence of collusion in the abundant secret meetings and communications between Trump campaign officials and associates such as Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Flynn, Carter Page, and others, with emissaries and officials from, or linked to the Russian government,” Schiff said. “The Trump campaign and Administration’s efforts to deny, conceal and, when discovered, misrepresent what took place in these interactions with the Russians is powerful evidence of a consciousness of wrongdoing.”
Democrats say their investigation efforts will continue. But without Republican cooperation there are limits to what type of additional information they can access and witnesses they can call. With the formal release of the House committee’s findings, the Senate Intelligence Committee becomes the lone congressional body still looking into electoral collusion. Beyond that, there is now broad agreement that the only investigative effort with the resources to get to the bottom of what happened in 2016 is the one helmed by Special Counsel Bob Mueller.