By TOM LoBIANCO
and CHAD DAY
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-led House intelligence committee on Friday released a lengthy report concluding it found no evidence that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign, drawing praise from the president and rebuttals from Democrats. The report caps an investigation that began with the promise of bipartisanship but quickly transformed into an acrimonious battle between Democrats and Republicans over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and whether there were any connections with the Trump campaign.
Trump quickly claimed vindication Friday, calling the report “totally conclusive, strong, powerful, many things.” “No collusion, which I knew anyway. No coordination, no nothing. It’s a witch hunt, that’s all it is,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. But the committee’s Republicans didn’t let the Trump campaign completely off the hook. They specifically cited the Trump campaign for “poor judgment” in taking a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower that was described in emails to Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., as part of a Russian government effort to aide his father’s presidential bid. The report also dubbed the campaign’s praise of WikiLeaks “objectionable.”
“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,” the House intelligence committee wrote. The report’s conclusion on collusion is fiercely opposed by committee Democrats, who accused their Republican colleagues of playing “defense counsel” for the White House throughout the investigation. “Committee Republicans chose not to seriously investigate — or even see, when in plain sight — evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement. Schiff cited several “secret meetings and communication” between people linked to Russia and Trump campaign officials, including Trump Jr. and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Schiff called on the committee to publicly release the transcripts from dozens of interviews with key witnesses, saying the public should be able to judge the evidence gathered by the committee. Democrats also released a 98-page rebuttal . Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, meanwhile called on intelligence officials to clear the committee to release more information from the report that was deemed classified. The 253-page document is packed with details and assessments, but is also spackled with redacted names and blacked-out passages. For instance, several pages are redacted in the section on Russian cyberattacks. One page is blacked out entirely except for a line reading, “Attribution is a Bear.”
The report faults intelligence officials during the Obama administration for not telling the Trump campaign that some of its members were “potential counterintelligence concerns.” It specifically cites Flynn, former Trump campaign foreign policy advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The panel also singles out Manafort for criticism, saying the numerous criminal charges he faces unrelated to Russia illustrated the need for better vetting by the campaign. “If the accusations against Manafort are true, he should have never served as a senior official with a campaign for the U.S. presidency, much less campaign chairman or manager,” the report said. Manafort has denied any wrongdoing.
The report largely confirms the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was assessed to be responsible for cyberattacks on U.S. political institutions, including the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s emails. The panel found “no credible evidence” that the computer systems were compromised by another cyber actor or by “an insider threat.”
The panel also found that Russians leveraged social media in the U.S. to sow discord during the campaign. The report challenges one part of a January 2017 intelligence assessment that found that Russian meddling was an effort to help Trump. The report says committee staff found “intelligence failings” that undermine that assessment by the FBI, CIA and NSA, though specifics are not detailed and some portions of that section are redacted.
Last month, in response to the committee announcing that finding, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it stood by the intelligence community’s findings and it will review the committee’s report. The House investigation is the first of several inquiries probing Russian election interference to conclude. A separate investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller continues, as do probes led by the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees. The House investigation began with bipartisan promise but ultimately succumbed to factional squabbling. But the probe did provide important public revelations.
Former FBI Director James Comey chose the March 20, 2017, hearing of the House intelligence committee to publicly reveal that the FBI had been investigating the Trump campaign since July 2016. One day later, the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes, took a clandestine trip to the White House grounds to review classified information that quickly drew scrutiny after he publicly disclosed that Trump associates’ communications had been swept up by U.S. spy agencies and accused Obama administration officials of misconduct. The episode drew questions about whether Nunes was coordinating with the White House and ultimately led to his recusing from the probe amid an ethics investigation into whether he mishandled classified information. In his absence, Conaway took over the probe. Nunes was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but never formally rejoined the House investigation.
Instead he launched a pair of investigations on his own, taking aim at the Justice Department and FBI. At the start of 2018, Nunes and the committee’s Republican staff crafted a memo revealing details of the FBI’s surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Trump ultimately chose to declassify the sensitive contents of the memo — including details from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application for Page. House investigators cautioned that Russia will continue meddling in U.S. elections and suggested some fixes that would help the government and politicians better defend against that interference. The panel wrote that intelligence officials should immediately alert presidential candidates and Congress when they discover “legitimate” threats to a campaign. The panel also recommended the executive branch “crack down” on leaks by conducting polygraphs.