What seems eons ago, but was only last spring, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) issued its report on “Russian Active Measures” in connection with the 2016 presidential election. The report was largely dismissed as a partisan effort by Chairman Devin Nunes, “one of Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress and a former adviser to his transition team,” to protect the president. The HPSCI minority issued separate views that claimed the majority’s findings were “crafted to advance a political narrative that exonerates the President, downplays Russia’s preference and support for then-candidate Trump, explains away repeated contacts by Trump associates with Russia-aligned actors, and seeks to shift suspicion towards President Trump’s political opponents and the prior administration.” Both the majority report and the minority response were then quickly forgotten.
With the Democrats assuming control of the committee in the 116thCongress, however, the HPSCI report may assume new significance. For one thing, the incoming majority will reopen the investigation in order to answer questions it claims the Republicans failed to adequately pursue. For another, there will be questions about the veracity of witnesses who testified before HPSCI in the 115thCongress. Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, has already plead guilty to making false statements to both HPSCI and the Senate intelligence committee regarding his efforts to pursue a Trump Tower Moscow deal during the 2016 presidential campaign.
It is important to distinguish between the facts reported by HPSCI and the characterization of those facts by the committee majority. It is fair to say that the HPSCI report gave President Trump the benefit of every reasonable doubt (and perhaps some unreasonable ones), but the facts it reported are nonetheless damning enough. Moreover, although the committee may have sought to exonerate the president in some respects, it also had some very pointed criticisms of the judgment and ethics of his campaign. It is therefore worth reviewing what HPSCI reported in the spring of 2018.
Russia’s Active Measures
The committee found that Russia employed an “active measures campaign” in connection with the 2016 election, a campaign which “achieved its primary goal of inciting division and discord among Americans.” It was “multifaceted,” “leverage[ing] cyberattacks, covert platforms, social media, third-party intermediaries, and state-run media.” Furthermore, “[h]acked material was disseminated through this myriad network . . . in conjunction with derisive messages posted on social media” in order to “undermine confidence in the election,” “sow fear and division in American society,” and ultimately to sabotage “the effectiveness of the future administration.”
The HPSCI report notes that Russia’s campaign was consistent with its efforts in other countries: “Russia supports fringe political parties and non-governmental organizations in Europe to further the Kremlin’s agenda while also disparaging or discrediting politicians and groups seen as hostile to Moscow.” For example, “during the recent French Presidential elections, Russian-controlled media highlighted defamatory stories about the private life and campaign funding of the more Russia-skeptic Emmanuel Macron.”
While the report avoids labeling Donald Trump (or for that matter Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein) as a “fringe” candidate supported by Russia, one can read between the lines. In any event, the report leaves no doubt who played the role of Macron in the U.S. election of 2016. Russian media “was critical of presidential candidates from both major parties but was consistently critical of candidate Clinton through the election.”
Clinton and her campaign were also the focus of Russia’s cyberattacks and its use of Wikileaks to disseminate politically damaging information obtained in those attacks. Thus, the report confirms key intelligence community findings, including that “Russian intelligence services, acting on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, launched cyber and conventional influence operations—notably by leaking politically sensitive emails obtained from computer intrusions—during the 2016 election.”
Why was Clinton targeted as the more “Russia-skeptic” candidate? The report does not directly answer that question, but it provides some clues. It points out that “candidate Trump and several of his campaign advisers expressed policy views toward Russia quite different than those espoused by much of the Republican foreign policy establishment . . . .”
Trump also had an unusual number of campaign aides with pro-Russian views or close ties to Russia. These included his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who at the time of the report had been indicted for financial crimes related to his pre-campaign Russian activities. As the report notes, “[i]f 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.” (A jury found in August that many of the accusations were true.).
Contacts Between the Trump Campaign and Russia
The HPSCI report was also highly critical of both Trump and his campaign for questionable dealings with Russia and Russian agents. A prime example of the campaign’s “poor judgment” was the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top campaign officials (Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Manafort) and several Russians who were or purported to be representing Russian government interests. HPSCI found that there were two reasons for the meeting. First, it was requested (through an intermediary to Trump, Jr.) by the Agalarovs, an extremely wealthy Russian family with ties to Vladimir Putin and a prior business relationship with the Trumps. Second, Trump, Jr. was promised derogatory information on Hillary Clinton would be forthcoming at the meeting. Although this information was never produced, HPSCI notes that Trump, Jr. was evidently “open to discussing derogatory information from Russian government sources that could be useful to candidate Trump.” The fact that Trump, Jr. invited Kushner and Manafort to the meeting “underscore[ed] his belief in the importance of the information.”
Even more concerning were the Trump campaign’s links to Wikileaks, which the report identifies as a “hostile non-state intelligence service.” It found the “Trump campaign’s periodic praise for and communications with Wikileaks—a hostile foreign organization—to be highly objectionable and inconsistent with U.S. national security interests.” Trump himself publicly “expressed enthusiasm for Wikileaks,” including his statement “I love Wikileaks” on October 10, 2016, which the report notes was after the intelligence community had tied Wikileaks to the Russian active measures campaign.
There were “numerous ill-advised” contacts between “multiple Trump associates” and Wikileaks, including communications by Trump, Jr. in September and October 2016. While HPSCI found no evidence that Trump associates were directly involved in the theft or publication of Clinton campaign-related emails, it acknowledged that they encouraged Wikileaks’ activities and made “ample use” of the information once it became public.
The report also touches on other questionable contacts between Trump associates and Russia, such as the trip by Carter Page to Moscow during the campaign. The report notes Page’s account of his activities in Moscow were “seemingly incomplete,” but draws no inferences therefrom.
Trump’s Business Relationship with Russia
Finally, the report discusses the business relationship between Trump and Russia. For example, while Trump was in Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant (which he owned at the time), he discussed with his business partners, the Agalarovs, the possibility of constructing a Trump Tower Moscow. Subsequently, during the presidential campaign, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, worked on a potential Trump Tower Moscow deal with Felix Sater, a colorful and shady Russian-American businessman who had pleaded guilty in the 1990s to participation in a stock fraud scheme allegedly orchestrated by the Russian mafia.
In late 2015 and early 2016, Cohen and Sater had a number of communications related to the Trump Tower Moscow project. Many of these conversations involved the need to get Russian government backing for the project, including “an attempt to broker a meeting or other ties between candidate Trump and President Putin.” Sater claimed, perhaps falsely or with exaggeration, to have connections to Putin and other Russian government officials who would support the project. He also suggested that cementing a business deal between Putin and Trump would benefit the latter politically. In a November 3, 2015 email to Cohen, Sater wrote: “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. . . . [If] Putin gets on stage with Donald for a ribbon cutting for Trump Moscow, . . . Donald owns the republican nomination.”
Much or all of this may have been grandiose puffery on Sater’s part, but Cohen was not merely pretending to represent Trump and the Trump Organization. Whether his clients were specifically aware of his communications with Sater, there does not seem to be any doubt they approved his efforts to move the Trump Tower Moscow forward in the midst of the presidential campaign or that they understood this would require the approval and support of the Russian government.
The Trump Tower evidence laid out by the committee would seem to establish, at the very least, (1) a conflict of interest that might reasonably be thought to explain Trump’s pro-Russia views and (2) corroboration of other evidence discussed in the report suggesting that Trump and/or his associates expected and welcomed Russian assistance in the campaign.
Since the issuance of the HPSCI report, additional facts have come to light regarding this project. For example, Cohen admitted that he lied to Congress when he claimed that the discussions regarding Trump Tower Moscow ended in January 2016; it appears that they continued until June of that year. It also transpired that Trump himself signed a letter of intent for the project in October 2015. This evidence provides further support for, but is not necessary to reach, the conclusions suggested below.
Based solely on the facts laid out by the HPSCI report, it is apparent that (1) candidate Trump expressed unusually pro-Russian views during the 2016 campaign, views that departed markedly from other Republican candidates and the Republican foreign policy establishment; (2) the Trump campaign employed a number of individuals with pro-Russian views or close Russian connections; (3) Trump and the Trump Organization had significant pre-existing business relationships in Russia, including with pro-Putin oligarchs such as the Agalarovs; (4) Trump and his family had aspirations for future business dealings in Russia, including the Trump Tower project which was understood to require Russian government approval and support; (5) Trump representatives actually negotiated for the Trump Tower project during the presidential campaign; (6) the Trump campaign had a number of inappropriate contacts with Russia or Russian agents during the campaign, including the June 2016 meeting that involved the highest officials in the Trump campaign; (7) the Trump campaign apparently expected and welcomed Russian support in connection with the election, particularly with regard to exposing derogatory information regarding Hillary Clinton; (8) the Trump campaign repeatedly communicated with Wikileaks, a “hostile non-state intelligence service” allied with Russia, and encouraged its dissemination of such derogatory information; and (9) the communication with and public praise for Wikileaks by the Trump campaign, including Trump himself, was “highly objectionable and inconsistent with U.S. national security interests.”
These facts alone would seem to establish significant intelligence and national security threats related to Russia’s past relationship with the Trump campaign, its current dealings with the Trump administration, and the potential for future election interference or cyberattacks. Even if there was no quid pro quo connecting Trump’s pro-Russia policy views, his Russian business interests, and the mutual political interests that Trump and Russia apparently shared during the 2016 election, there is still more than enough reason to be worried about how these matters will affect U.S. policy toward Russia during this administration. Similarly, whether or not there was any criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia (often referred to inaccurately as “collusion”) or other illegal activity by Trump or his associates during the 2016 election is largely immaterial to the intelligence and national security danger that should be the focus of HPSCI’s interest.
The HPSCI minority harshly criticized the majority report for downplaying the facts it found and crafting “a political narrative beneficial to President Trump.” No doubt it is true that the report was carefully written to phrase its criticisms as diplomatically as possible and to avoid easily quotable passages that could be used to portray the report as “anti-Trump.” Indeed, one might say that the majority and minority had a mutual political interest in letting the report be portrayed as a defense or vindication of Trump. This, however, does not change the substance of what the committee reported. Moreover, the report, as described earlier, has more than a hint of strong disapproval, if not outright disgust, at the behavior of the Trump campaign vis a vis Russia.
People who carefully read the HPSCI report (probably a small group) might not have been surprised when a few months later Congressman Will Hurd, a former CIA officer and Republican member of the committee, issued a stinging rebuke of the president’s joint press conference with Putin, in which Trump famously failed to rebut the Russian president’s denial of any election interference. Hurd wrote that “[b]y playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands, the leader of the free world actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign that legitimized Russian denial and weakened the credibility of the United States to both our friends and foes abroad.” These do not seem like the words of someone trying to push a “political narrative” favorable to Trump.
In short, the HPSCI report provides a baseline of facts agreed on by House Republicans as well as Democrats with regard to the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia. While the new Democratic majority will undoubtedly want to pursue additional avenues of inquiry, it is doubtful how much it will be able to add to the committee’s prior findings, the ongoing bipartisan investigation by the Senate intelligence committee and the investigation of Special Counsel Mueller.
A more fruitful use of the committee’s limited resources would be to accept the HPSCI report as a starting point, imperfect as it may be, to fashion a bipartisan response to President Trump’s appeasement policy toward Russia. One has only to read Defense Secretary Mattis’s resignation letter to understand the urgency of doing so.