WASHINGTON – House Intelligence Committee Republicans say they have found no evidence that President Donald Trump and his affiliates colluded with Russian officials to sway the 2016 election or that the Kremlin sought to help him, a conclusion at odds with Democrats’ takeaways from the congressional panel’s year-long probe and the apparent trajectory of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The findings are part of a 150-page draft report that Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, who oversees the committee’s Russia probe, announced on Monday. It will probably be weeks before the document is made public.
“We’ve found no evidence of collusion,” Conaway told reporters Monday. He noted that the worst the panel uncovered was “perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings, inappropriate judgment at taking meetings” – such as a June 2016 gathering at Trump Tower in New York City between members of the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer. Conaway said that meeting “shouldn’t have happened, no doubt about that.”
“But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take this series of inadvertent contacts with each other, meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of a fiction, page-turner spy thriller,” Conaway said. “We’re not dealing in fiction, we’re dealing in facts, and we found no evidence of any collusion.”
House Intelligence Committee Republicans completed the draft report without any input from Democrats, who will be able to see and weigh in on the document starting Tuesday, Conaway said. In a statement Monday night, the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, Calif., said the sight-unseen report was a “tragic milestone” and a “capitulation to the executive branch.”
Trump responded to the announcement on Twitter on Monday night, writing in all capital letters “THE HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE HAS, AFTER A 14 MONTH LONG IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION, FOUND NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION OR COORDINATION BETWEEN THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND RUSSIA TO INFLUENCE THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.”
He made no immediate mention of the Democrats’ objection.
The committee has been crippled by partisan division for months, as GOP members accused Democrats of trying to malign Trump without adequate evidence and Democrats accused the GOP of trying to undermine Mueller’s investigation.
Schiff argued last month that there was “ample evidence” of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, and in recent weeks, Mueller’s probe has been gathering evidence that an early 2017 meeting in Seychelles was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin.
On Monday, Schiff excoriated House Republicans for ending the panel’s probe before Mueller’s team or the other congressional panels looking at Russian interference have finished their work. Schiff predicted that “Republicans will be held accountable for abandoning a critical investigation of such vital national importance” if new information arises from future indictments and other reports.
Conaway dismissed the idea of keeping the investigation open any longer, saying that if Democrats expected him to “sit around and wait with the expectation that something might happen,” his answer was “no.”
“We think we have the evidence that we need now to come to the conclusion that we came to,” Conaway said, adding that if compelling information surfaces down the line, he would consider reopening the probe.
Conclusions reached by the Republicans in their draft report represent a break with the U.S. intelligence community, which determined in January 2017 that part of the Kremlin’s strategy was to help Trump’s chances of winning. Conaway said the panel would release a “separate report on the analytical integrity” of the intelligence community’s conclusions in the weeks ahead – though he said the panel agreed with the determination that Russia used “active measures” to affect the 2016 election season.
Democrats and Republicans on the committee have interviewed the same 73 witnesses and viewed the same 300,000-plus documents, according to a tally Republicans released Monday. Democrats say there are thousands more pages of documents the committee never procured and dozens more witnesses they need to call for interviews – including several they say need to be subpoenaed for testimony after refusing to fully answer the panel’s questions.
But Conaway argued against using subpoenas or contempt citations to compel more testimony from witnesses who refused to answer questions about their time in the administration, arguing that Trump might want to invoke executive privilege.
“You use subpoenas when you think you can actually get something from them, and we’re not particularly confident that the subpoena process will get us any more information than we had,” Conaway said. “We’ve interviewed everyone we think we need to interview.”
Among those Conaway listed as unlikely to answer additional questions from the panel is Trump supporter and Blackwater security group founder Erik Prince. Democrats want to determine whether Prince lied to the panel about his meeting with a Kremlin representative in Seychelles in January 2017.
They’ve also been frustrated with former White House strategist Steve Bannon. Despite signals the committee would seek to hold him in contempt for refusing to answer questions related to the Trump administration and the transition period, that now appears unlikely.
Instead, Conaway said, the committee would continue to investigate allegations of surveillance abuse the GOP highlighted in a controversial memo earlier this year. The panel also would continue to examine allegations of “unmasking,” he added, noting claims that the Obama administration improperly revealed the names of people and corporations in surveillance reports. Democrats have objected to both investigations.
“Even while they close down the Russia investigation, they plan to continue trying to put our own government on trial,” Schiff said. “This is a great service to the president, and a profound disservice to the country.”
Schiff said the panel’s Democrats would continue aspects of the investigation “with or without the active participation of the majority.” Conaway stressed that the GOP’s draft report was not final and he would seek to incorporate Democrats’ suggestions before turning it over to the intelligence community for redactions, but Democrats are expected to release a separate report.
GOP leaders argued that the committee could not wait any longer to release its findings without doing a disservice to the public.
“After more than a year investigating Russia’s actions in the 2016 election, we are well into the primary season for the 2018 elections, and experts are warning that we need to safeguard against further interference,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “That’s what this next phase is about, and we hope Democrats will join us in seeing this through.”
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