When Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee ended their year-long investigation into Russian election meddling Monday, they took direct aim at the US intelligence community — and added fuel to a simmering political fight about whether Russia actively tried to help Donald Trump win the White House.
Republicans on the committee said Monday that they believed Russia interfered with the election, but rejected the US intelligence committee’s unanimous assessment that Moscow did so with the explicit goal of ensuring Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.
That directly contradicts the intelligence community’s assessment from January 2017, which clearly states that Russia wanted Trump to win. It also contradicts special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for working to help Trump win by sowing divisions via the internet.
“We’ve found no evidence of collusion,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), the leader of the committee’s investigation, told reporters on Monday, adding that the most they’d found was “perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings, inappropriate judgment at taking meetings.”
It’s not the first time Republicans have disagreed with the intelligence community’s assessment about Russian meddling, but the release of the committee’s initial findings marks a shift from Republicans criticizing the spy agencies publicly to a new phase where they’ve done so in a formal, written report.
That’s the most tangible evidence to date that House Republicans are going all in on their attempt to shield Trump from accusations that his campaign colluded with Moscow in 2016.
“This is one of the first times I’ve seen that as an institution, they’re hyperpartisan and willing to do damage to the institutions,” said John Sipher, a former CIA operative who ran the agency’s Russia program for several years.
The release of the report also comes as Trump’s defenders inside and outside Congress step up their attacks on Mueller, pointing to a mound of evidence — much of it exaggerated, mischaracterized, or outright false — to justify his potential firing.
The Republicans’ claims are just another step in a concerted effort to cast doubt on the intelligence community and Mueller’s investigation. By accepting that the Russians meddled but saying they didn’t prefer Trump, Republicans are trying to build a public case that there’s no need for the Mueller probe because there’s no actual evidence of collusion.
Making that case means attacking US law enforcement and the US intelligence community. And the new report from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee is meant to give Trump’s defenders a new cudgel.
To understand the significance of Monday’s report from House Republicans, it’s important to look at the intelligence community assessment they’re now rejecting.
On January 6, 2017, the intelligence community released a unanimous report that concluded Russia meddled in the US election with the explicit goal of helping Trump win the White House. “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible,” the report said.
Trump and his allies have consistently rejected those findings, in part because he and his aides believe they’re part of a broader attempt to delegitimize his surprise electoral win and prevent his administration from being able to focus on its policy agenda, scattershot as it may be.
The fight has spilled into public view and grown increasingly vitriolic. On January 11, 2017, Trump accused intelligence officials of using tactics used in “Nazi Germany,” and he has consistently mocked the US intelligence community for its faulty pre-Iraq War intelligence.
Last month, meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes — a close Trump ally — released a memo that said intelligence officials tricked a judge to get permission to spy on a Trump campaign staffer.
Even Trump’s outgoing CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, lied about what the 2017 intelligence report on Russian meddling actually said, falsely claiming it proved Russia hadn’t impacted the results of the election. Intelligence chiefs have in fact made no assessments whatsoever about whether the Russian meddling impacted the actual vote totals.
“What this shows is that both the White House and House Republicans are only looking at it through a domestic political lens,” Sipher, the former CIA operative, told me.
Democrats on the intelligence committee criticized the Republican decision to end the probe and issue the report, saying that the committee’s Republicans were trying to protect Trump rather than honestly assess Russian electoral meddling.
“Instead of defending America from a future attack, the Republican response has been to constantly attack the police and intelligence officials charged with guarding our democracy,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) said in a statement.
The ultimate aim of the criticisms of intelligence work may be to inoculate Trump against charges from Mueller, who continues to investigate both potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and whether Trump obstructed justice to derail the probe.
The new political sparring comes just five weeks after a similar fight broke out when Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chair, released his report alleging deception by the FBI and the Department of Justice. Democrats issued a formal rebuttal arguing that the GOP memo was misleading.
The Nunes memo was released in its entirety, but the Democratic memo was partially redacted by the White House, which said sections had to be protected for national security reasons. The differing treatment prompted some Democrats to warn of a coordinated cover-up by administration officials and House Republicans.
“It will certainly appear that the White House is trying to stonewall again if, in fact, they make these political redactions that we fear,” ranking intelligence committee member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said at the time.
Both memos, however, were never meant to be formal congressional conclusions. Monday’s announcement is the final word at the end of an extended congressional investigation.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL), who serves on the intelligence committee but is retiring at the end of the current term, told CNN Monday that he wanted the House to end its probe because it was losing credibility and hardening a lingering partisan divide.
“We’re basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day’s news,” he said.
After Conaway announced the end of the intelligence committee investigation, Democrats pledged to continue their work and said they’d issue a separate and competing report. That would basically be a repeat of what happened after the release of the Nunes memo.
Sipher said intelligence professionals were already skeptical of House Republicans, but that Monday’s announcement won’t help.
“The hints were already there with the Nunes memo,” he said. “For them to say that they disagree with the entire intelligence community, yeah, that contributes to the cynicism.”