House GOP Ends Inquiry on Collusion
Posted March 12, 2018 9:15 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Even as the special counsel expands his inquiry and pursues criminal charges against at least four Trump associates, House Intelligence Committee Republicans said Monday they have found no evidence of collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia to sway the 2016 election.
Rep. K. Michael Conaway of Texas, who is leading the investigation, said committee Republicans agreed with the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered with the election, but they broke with the agencies on one crucial point: that the Russians had favored Trump’s candidacy.
“The bottom line: The Russians did commit active measures against our election in ’16, and we think they will do that in the future,” Conaway said. But, he added, “We disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”
The announcement brought to an abrupt end to one of two remaining investigations into the topic on Capitol Hill and quickly provoked sharp objections from committee Democrats, who have warned Republicans not to close the matter before the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is done with his work.
In a statement on Monday evening, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, lamented the decision, saying that the committee had put partisan politics over fulsome fact-finding and had failed to serve American voters at a key moment in history.
“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,” he said. “And history will judge its actions harshly.”
Schiff and intelligence officials also disputed the Republican finding that the country’s intelligence agencies had erred.
U.S. intelligence officials concluded in January 2017 that President Vladimir Putin of Russia personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” and pivoted from trying to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton to developing “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the agencies stood by their work and would review the committee’s findings.
The Republican findings hand Trump, who has dismissed the whole matter as a “witch hunt,” a convenient talking point even before Mueller interviews the president and possibly other key witnesses.
“We found no evidence of collusion. We found perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings,” Conaway said during a briefing with reporters on Monday afternoon. “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take these series of inadvertent contacts with each other, meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of a fiction and turn it into a page-turner, spy thriller.”
Conaway said the committee would turn over a 150-page draft report to Democrats on Tuesday for review and comment. The document includes more than 25 recommendations related to elections and cybersecurity, counterintelligence practices and campaign finance rules. He said the committee was preparing a separate, in-depth analysis of the intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment.
The decision leaves just a single committee on Capitol Hill that is investigating full time an attack on U.S. democracy, in addition to the special counsel.
Conaway said the panel interviewed more than 70 witnesses and reviewed more than 300,000 pages of documents and sent investigators to seven countries. Democrats say that effort has fallen well short of gathering all the evidence. Important witnesses have not been interviewed, and records have not been subpoenaed, including bank documents and certain communications that Democrats say are paramount to understanding the case.
The committee’s final interview took place on Thursday with Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s onetime campaign manager.
Several witnesses thought to be central to the investigation never came before the panel, including Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort; Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates; Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn; and the Trump campaign’s former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, all of whom are under indictment by the special counsel.
Others, including George Nader, an adviser to the United Arab Emirates with links to current and former Trump aides, only recently came to the committee’s attention.
Conaway said he hoped to work expeditiously with American intelligence agencies to declassify the report and make it public. He also said the committee would consider any significant new evidence that may emerge in the case in the future.
The investigation comes to a close almost exactly year after it began. At that time, Democrats and Republicans on the panel agreed on a four-part framework for the investigation and pledged to work “on a bipartisan basis” to “fully investigate all the evidence we collect and follow that evidence wherever it leads.”
But the day-to-day reality of running a closely watched investigation potentially implicating a sitting president left the committee badly frayed. Democrats have accused Republicans of essentially blocking their path to the truth to protect Trump. Republicans have countered that Democrats on the panel have turned private proceedings into a television spectacle to earn political points.
The investigation had made little forward progress since December, committee members said. Only three witnesses have been brought in for questioning this year — a drastic reduction in pace compared to earlier months.
Instead, Republicans and Democrats on the committee spent a month locked in an extraordinary dispute over a secret Republican memorandum that accused top FBI and Justice Department officials of abusing their powers to spy on one of Trump’s former campaign advisers. Republicans released the document over the objections of the Justice Department and the FBI, which warned in a rare public statement that it was dangerously misleading, and many used the document to argue that the entire Russia inquiry had been tainted by anti-Trump bias from the start.
Democrats eventually wrote and released their own countermemo, drawn from the same underlying material, to rebut the Republican document. They are likely to write their own final report as well, outlining questions that remain unanswered.
In a sign of how badly relations between the two sides have broken down, Republicans on the committee briefed reporters on their initial findings on Monday before notifying their Democratic partners what was coming.
Some Democrats have signaled they would like to reopen the investigation under a Schiff chairmanship if the party wins control of the House in November’s midterm elections.
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the committee’s Republican chairman who had to step aside from leading the inquiry last spring, has made clear he will continue to push ahead with his own investigation of a dossier of salacious and unsubstantiated reports about ties between Trump, his campaign team and Russia’s interference campaign.
The House committee’s announcement will surely shift the spotlight across Capitol Hill to the Senate Intelligence Committee, where senators have been able to proceed largely in private and with comparative comity. The committee is expected to hold a public hearing and issue a report in the coming weeks that will highlight key findings from the investigation related to election security.