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House Intelligence Committee Says Nothing to See Here. Move On.

Russia probe halted with false conclusions and much undone

The yearlong investigation by the House Intelligence Committee into Russian interference in the 2016 election came to a close with a 250-page report issued at the end of April, authored solely by Republicans, that Democrats on the committee know to be a sham designed to protect President Trump. The report says the committee found no collusion with Russians, claims Russian interference was not slanted to help Trump win the election, faults the FBI, the intelligence agencies, the Clinton campaign for opposition research based on Russian sources — but not itself for an investigation that left so much unexplored.

oops

On the same day the report was released saying no collusion found, the Russian lawyer who enticed Donald Trump Jr. and others to the July 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with the offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton admitted she was directly connected to the Kremlin. Natalia Veselnitskaya admitted to NBC's Richard Engel, "I am a lawyer and I am an informant. Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general", Yuri Chaika.

That differed markedly from what she told the Senate Judiciary Committee in November…

"I operate independently of any government bodies. I have no relationship with Mr. Chaika, his representatives and his institutions other than those related to my professional function as a lawyer".

That attempt to disassociate the Russian government from the July meeting collapsed when Engel showed Ms Veselnitskaya email between herself and Chaika's office. The mail was obtained by an organization set up by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil magnate who was stripped of his assets and jailed by Vladimir Putin, and is now a dissident living in exile.

Donald Trump Jr. had responded enthusiastically to the prospect of obtaining from Veselnitskaya information that might damage the Clinton campaign. “I love it,” he wrote in an e-mail agreeing to meet with her, and gathered Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and others for the occasion, only to then claim that her offer came to nothing but "puffery", a denial of intense interest to the Mueller probe, but apparently case closed for House committee Republicans.

The report acknowledges Russian interference but the Republicans rejected the intelligence agencies' findings that the Russian meddling was slanted in favor of Trump. That position ignores obvious evidence: at the very least the Clinton and Podesta e-mails provided to Wikileaks meant to damaged her campaign.

Asked on the PBS NewsHour if the denial of a tilt toward Trump was true, former FBI Director James Comey said about the intelligence, "We read it very, very differently, as did the analysts from the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the director of national intelligence". And this finding was arrived at with "high confidence, which is very unusual in a joint intelligence community assessment", Comey added. The tilt was not vague. Intelligence officials could see that the Russian efforts at first sought to "denigrate" Hillary Clinton but then pivoted to bolstering Donald Trump.

dereliction

California Democrat Eric Swalwell is a reliably outspoken committee member, clearly outraged by the Republican whitewash.

"We saw so many witnesses who told us about approaches that Russians were making to Trump family members, Trump business individuals, Trump campaign officials...either to give them dirt that existed on Hillary Clinton or to set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin."

Members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees have occasionally said they disagreed with claims of no collusion but could say no more, the probes being classified. James Comey said recently that, though he knows nothing later than his firing almost year ago, even by then "to say there was no evidence just wasn’t the case".

Insider Swalwell makes clear that the committee leaving untied so many loose ends is dereliction of its mandate. There's the number of key witnesses that had yet to be called to testify, among them former national security adviser Michael Flynn, one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos, who first let slip that Moscow had thousands of Clinton's e-mails. Only three witnesses had been called before the committee this year. Others who did come before the committee were permitted to refuse to answer questions of their choosing — Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowski among them — with the question of contempt of Congress never raised. Mike Pence said he would not testify about what he knows about contacts between Russia and members of President Trump's transition team, which Pence headed, because he saw no precedence for such an appearance. Republicans would not compel him to appear, leaving moot Pence's absurdity: how could a precedent for anything ever be established if a precedent is a prerequisite?

where it went off the rails

It was at the hands of its chairman, California Republican Devin Nunes, that the House Intelligence Committee's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election became highly politicized. In March a year ago Nunes was caught out pretending he had come upon documents proving — although they did nothing of the sort — that former President Obama "wiretapped" Trump Tower during the transition. It turned into farce when aides admitted that the documents were from the White House itself, slipped to Nunes to sound the alarm for them. For his transgression, he had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

But he didn't keep to that. In January, he released a memo accusing the FBI of using unverified material — the "dossier" compiled by Christopher Steele, an alumnus of Britain's MI6 intelligence service — to obtain a FISA warrant for surveillance of one-time Trump campaign aide Carter Page. (see "The Nunes Memo Is Out — Now What?")The application certainly would have included that Page had shown up in 2013 New York FBI wiretaps of a pair of Russian spies and a Russian banker who were trying to recruit Page; that the FBI held the suspicion that Page might have become a foreign agent; and that Page was on a trip to Moscow in 2016 where he had unusually prominent contacts. Which is to say that there would have been material other than the dossier in the application to persuade the FISA court to issue the warrant for surveillance of Carter Page — which they did four times over. But Nunes' memo mentioned none of that, his objective being to leave the impression that the FBI had obtained its warrant and launched the whole Russian investigation on the basis of the unverified dossier alone.

report findings

"While the Committee found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, coordinated, or conspired with the Russian government, the investigation did find poor judgment and ill-considered actions by the Trump and Clinton campaigns". For Donald Trump, that inconclusive remark by a committee that aborted its investigation into that very question was somehow conclusive exoneration. He tweeted:


Not only did the committee fail to go far enough, but they state they hardly went far at all:

"The Committee collected facts related to the FBI's investigation through May 2017, until the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Committee dld not examine events that occurred thereafter in order to avoid interfering with Special Counsel Mueller's ongoing investigation" [emphasis added].

Several contacts with Russians — Donald Jr. with the Russian lawyer, his meeting with with a Russian official at at the 2016 National Rifle Association annual meeting, Eric Prince traveling all the way to the Seychelle Islands in the Indian Ocean to meet with a Russian oligarch, numerous "ill-advised" contacts with Wikileaks — all are swept away by the report saying nothing came of them. Jared Kushner's attempt to set up back-channel communications with the Russians at their embassy is awarded this baffling logic:

"Finding .#35: Possible Russian efforts to set up a 'back channel' with Trump associates after the election suggest the absence of collusion during the campaign, since the communication associated with collusion would have rendered such a 'back channel' unnecessary."

And where was Felix Sater in the report, a convicted felon with links to Russian organized crime whom the committee did interview, who had e-mailed Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, "Buddy, our boy can become president of the U.S.A. and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this".

The Democrats' response was that "The pattern of deception surrounding these meetings — first denying they took place; then, when discovered, denying their content; and then denying their significance — suggests a consciousness of wrongfulness if not illegality".

The report contains chapters on Russian meddling in Europe, its attacks on the U.S., the U.S. countermeasures — much of all three heavily redacted — and fairly balanced narratives of the Trump and Clinton campaigns, reciting the contacts with Russians in the former and the funding of the Steele dossier in the latter. It ends with conclusions and recommendations, much of it concerning prevention of leaks.

Then come the appendices, which take up almost half the report. Despite the committee's mission to be a "Bi-partisan Inquiry Into Russian Active Measures", that mandate is dropped. Instead, the report is given over to Christopher Steele's dossier. Devin Nunes' memorandum of January reappears (see earlier) in which he faults the FBI for using the dossier in its FISA warrant. The Democrats' rebuttal follows.

Then, surprisingly in a House investigation's report, comes a nine-page Senate petition to the Justice Department by senators Charles Grassley of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, to investigate Steele for lying to the FBI: he had revealed his findings to media outlets other than those he told the FBI. Following that, 18-pages of proceedings before British courts on the same matter. In other words, the report finds Christopher Steele's alleged transgressions more important than pursuit of Russian interference or collusion.

When the New York Times published the list of the Mueller teams 49 questions for Trump, Swalwell could only say,

"The Special Counsel is asking all the questions that all the Republicans on the Intelligence Committee were not willing to ask, and hopefully, using their subpoena power, to get the documents, the bank records, the phone logs, the travel records, to test the answers they receive."

Instead, Republicans have chosen to destroy all credibility of the House Intelligence Committee going forward by terminating their investigation well before the job was done in order not to find anything further that could damage Donald Trump.

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