GOP Shutters Disputed Russia Probe Despite New Revelations

(Bloomberg) -- Republicans shut down the House Intelligence Committee’s contentious Russia probe Thursday, despite new revelations that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign may have benefited from the exploitation of personal information from millions of Facebook users.

In a closed-door meeting, the panel voted over Democrats’ objections to approve and release a Republican-written final report, said Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican who led the panel’s investigation.

"House Intelligence Committee votes to release final report,” Trump said in a Twitter posting Friday morning in his first comment on the vote. “FINDINGS: (1) No evidence provided of Collusion between Trump Campaign & Russia. (2) The Obama Administrations Post election response was insufficient. (3) Clapper provided inconsistent testimony on media contacts."

A summary of the committee’s 44 conclusions, published after the vote, criticized the Obama administration’s reaction to mounting evidence of Russia’s meddling efforts before the 2016 election and largely dismissed suggestions of wrongdoing by Trump family members and associates, including former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general.

“The Committee found no evidence that meetings between Trump associates -- including Jeff Sessions -- and official representatives of the Russian government -- including Ambassador Kislyak -- reflected collusion, coordination or conspiracy with the Russian government,” according to the summary.

The summary said accusations of collusion were further undermined by Russian attempts to establish a “back channel” with the Trump campaign, saying that such an effort wouldn’t have been needed because “collusion would have rendered such a ‘back channel’ unnecessary.”

Conaway, in a statement, said the findings and recommendations “show a pattern of Russian active measures in the United States, both through cyberattacks and their use of social media to sow discord. This poses a serious threat to future U.S. elections, including the primary elections that are already underway.”

But Democrats said that Republicans rejected several efforts to pursue open leads, as well as a push to hold in contempt a witness who refused to answer many of their questions.

"It’s a rather sad chapter in our committee’s history," said Adam Schiff of California, the panel’s top Democrat. He said Republicans also refused requests to vote in public. The second-ranking Democrat, Jim Himes of Connecticut, said the minority’s views on the findings in the Republican report will be announced on Monday.

The panel’s Republicans have broadly asserted there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians in the 2016 election, an issue still under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The report will be Congress’s first official finding on that issue -- although it won’t be immediately released because declassification could take several weeks.

‘Followed the Facts’

Conaway said earlier this week that the report will present a full account of what occurred during the election. "Everything we know about -- that’s right," he assured. He added that the committee had "followed the facts." He characterized most of the report as "pretty non-controversial," dealing more on such questions as protecting electoral systems, and that the collusion angle is only part of it.

The committee’s list of recommendations includes better coordination between intelligence agencies and state election officials but cautions Congress against hampering “the Executive Branch’s ability to use discretion in responding to a particular foreign threat,” a reference to demands by many lawmakers that the president sanction or take other actions against Russia for meddling.

One of the key potential outcomes of the committee’s hearings, public transcripts of its dozens of closed-door interviews with witnesses, may never surface. Republicans last week reversed earlier plans to release those transcripts, though Democrats say they plan to attach the documents to their final report.

Reversing Decision

“We may not be able to do that, turns out,” Conaway said in an interview last week, adding that he had been persuaded that such a move could discourage future witnesses from testifying before the committee. Conaway had vowed as recently as March 5 that the transcripts would be published.

Disputing the conclusions of the majority, Committee Democrats say it is clearly premature to end the probe. Adam Schiff of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, says the Republican commitment to "follow the facts" is now "the latest casualty of the political imperative of protecting the president, no matter the cost to our democracy."

Schiff has said that Democrats will write and release their own conclusions from the investigation, and that they plan to continue their work.

Witnesses Not Called

Schiff and other Democrats say the panel has yet to interview key witnesses like George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser; former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and K.T. McFarland, Flynn’s former deputy. Other witnesses, they add, have been allowed to refuse to answer some questions, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Donald Trump Jr.; former White House strategist Steve Bannon; Corey Lewandowski, who ran the Trump campaign for a time; and outgoing White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

In the case of Bannon, the committee hasn’t taken action in response to his refusal -- even under subpoena -- to answer some questions. Conaway acknowledged there is "no current activity" to do so.

Committee chairman Devin Nunes of California pushed back on Democratic criticism, saying the report was based on more than 70 interviews with witnesses and 300,000 documents.

The report “represents the comprehensive results of what the Committee has learned during its fourteen-month-long investigation, and will be useful in thwarting any attempts by Russia or other foreign powers to further meddle in U.S. elections,” Nunes said in a statement.

Democrats were also critical of Republicans ignoring new reports that the data firm Cambridge Analytica was allegedly able to exploit information from Facebook users without their permission to benefit Trump’s campaign.

Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s now-suspended chief executive, denied in a BBC interview that the firm had engaged in improper tactics to sway elections.

On their own, Schiff and Democrats have already invited two key witnesses in that matter to testify, even if the Republicans aren’t interested. One of them, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, has agreed to be interviewed.

‘Obviously Concerned’

Conaway said Republicans, too, were "obviously concerned" about what Cambridge Analytica did with Facebook data. He added that the committee could look into that as part of its regular oversight duties on issues of national security.

Decisions to call more witnesses on that topic would be up to Nunes, who didn’t respond to whether he would do so. "I’ll be moving on to the farm bill," said Conaway, who is also House Agriculture Committee chairman.

But Nunes and other Republicans have indicated they are moving on, too, with plans to look into anti-Trump activities they say took place in the State Department and intelligence agencies during the Obama administration. Those loom as topics almost guaranteed to deliver yet more dysfunction and partisanship to the already fractured Intelligence Committee.

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