Photographs by AP/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman, called the Russian meddling an “extensive, sophisticated” effort.
Originally published May 17, 2018 at 04:30a.m., updated May 17, 2018 at 10:27a.m.
WASHINGTON -- The Senate Intelligence Committee has determined that the U.S. intelligence community was correct in assessing that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the aim of helping then-candidate Donald Trump, contradicting findings House Republicans reported last month.
"We see no reason to dispute the [intelligence community's] conclusions," the committee's chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Wednesday in a joint statement with vice chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
Warner added: "Our staff concluded that the ... conclusions were accurate and on point. The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President [Vladimir] Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton."
This marks the second of four interim findings the intelligence panel has said it will publicize before tackling the more consequential question of whether Trump and his associates colluded with Russia to influence the election's outcome, allegations the president has denied and sought to discredit. The committee, which earlier this month released related findings on election security, is expected to publish a comprehensive final report this fall.
Another interim report due in the next few months will explore how social media networks were exploited. A fourth will evaluate how President Barack Obama's administration handled early warnings from intelligence agencies of Russian meddling.
Wednesday's announcement comes amid growing Republican scrutiny of the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, whose team also is examining whether Trump's campaign coordinated with the Kremlin and if the president obstructed justice in a bid to limit the probe's scope.
On that front, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Wednesday said Mueller's investigators told the president's legal team that Mueller would adhere to the Justice Department's view that the Constitution bars the prosecution of sitting presidents, meaning the special counsel will not indict Trump if he uncovers any wrongdoing.
The disclosure provides the greatest clarity to date about how Mueller, who is also investigating whether Trump tried to obstruct the inquiry itself, may proceed. If he concludes that he has evidence that the president broke the law, experts say, he now has only two main options while Trump remains in office: He could write a report about the president's conduct that Congress might use as part of any impeachment proceedings, or he could deem the president as an nonindicted co-conspirator in court documents.
Giuliani said the special counsel's office displayed uncertainty about whether Trump could be indicted.
"When I met with Mueller's team, they seemed to be in a little bit of confusion about whether they could indict," Giuliani said. "We said, 'It's pretty clear that you have to follow DOJ policy.'"
Giuliani said one member of Mueller's office acknowledged that the president could not be indicted. Two or three days later, Giuliani said, Mueller's office called another of the president's lawyers, Jay Sekulow, to say that prosecutors would adhere to the Justice Department view.
"They can't indict," Giuliani said. "They can't indict. Because if they did, it would be dismissed quickly. There's no precedent for a president being indicted."
A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment about the assertions of Giuliani, who since being hired by Trump last month has repeatedly made statements that were later clarified.
'HAVE THE FACTS'
The Senate Intelligence Committee's findings published Wednesday clash with the House GOP's determination that the intelligence community did not follow its own best practices in concluding the Kremlin favored Trump in the election.
The dispute -- and the questions it now raises about which record of events is most accurate -- comes as the Republican Party is trying to adopt a unified message heading into the 2018 election season.
Trump has taken umbrage at the intelligence community's determination that the Kremlin favored his candidacy over Clinton's. The president cheered the House Intelligence Committee's report, claiming on Twitter that it vindicated him by finding there was no evidence his campaign colluded with Russia.
Although the Senate panel has yet to weigh in on the collusion allegations, Burr and Warner have hinted for days that their panel's interim findings on the intelligence community would depart from those reached by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.
"I'm not sure that the House was required to substantiate every conclusion with facts," Burr told reporters last week, promising the Senate panel would "have the facts to show for" its conclusions.
"Everyone that we've ever had testify still stands by the full findings" of the intelligence community's assessment, Warner said Monday, adding later, "We've had all the Obama officials, we've had all the Trump officials. Every person."
Asked Wednesday about the discrepancy between the two panels' conclusions, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the House Intelligence Committee's chairman, said: "That's nice." He declined to elaborate.
Nunes, who became the subject of an ethics inquiry last year, delegated day-to-day oversight of that panel's Russia investigation to Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, but remained peripherally involved, approving subpoenas and other related actions.
Conaway's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
House Democrats, who roundly disagreed with the House GOP's findings, praised the Senate Intelligence Committee's conclusions. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the House intelligence panel's ranking member, said in a statement that he "fully concur[s] with the conclusion of the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the [intelligence community's] determination that Russia sought to help the Trump campaign, hurt Hillary Clinton and sow discord in the United States is fully supported by the evidence."
As the Senate panel's investigation moves into its final stages, members will have to resolve lingering disputes, including whether to summon Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner to public hearings.
Democrats want every possible witness to be interviewed, including key players in Mueller's investigation such as cooperating witnesses Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, who may not be available to testify for months.
As Burr and Warner headed up an escalator in the basement of the Capitol complex after a recent briefing in a secure room, a reporter asked Burr if he'd relent on calling Trump Jr. and Kushner for public hearings.
"Make some news. Tell him! Make some news!" Warner cajoled from a step below Burr. Burr demurred.
Asked if he agrees with the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who also serves on the panel, said he doesn't "want to get ahead of the committee as a whole."
"I will say, though, that, in general, over the last year and a half, as we've reviewed the intelligence and the analysis that went into that intelligence community assessment, we found most of its conclusions borne out," said Cotton, of Dardanelle.
It is not surprising that Moscow would attempt to interfere, he said.
"Russia has tried to influence our elections and influence our political debate for decades, and they continue to try to do so not just in the United States but in western Europe as well. So there's no doubt that Russia and Russian intelligence services were trying to sow chaos and discord in our democracy then just as they have for decades," Cotton said.
It is a "wholly separate question whether the Trump campaign was involved in that at all and, as several Democrats on the committee have pointed out repeatedly, there's still no evidence of that whatsoever," he continued.
On Wednesday, Senate Intelligence Committee members met in closed session to discuss their findings with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former National Security Agency chief Adm. Mike Rogers.
All three were deeply involved in issuing the intelligence assessment of Russian meddling in the election. None has wavered from the conclusions about Russian interference in the election, according to senators who were in the room.
Information for this article was contributed by Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post; by Mary Clare Jalonick and Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press; by Steven T. Dennis, Arit John and Nafeesa Syeed of Bloomberg News; by Michael S. Schmidt, Maggie Haberman and Charlie Savage of The New York Times; and by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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