Two months ago, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, who is leading the House Democrats’ inquisition of President Trump, said it “still remains to be seen” whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in its interference in the 2016 election.
Then on Dec. 10, the congressman from California went in a different direction.
“We do know this,” the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said on CNN, a frequent Schiff host. “The Russians offered help, the campaign accepted help. The Russians gave help and the president made full use of that help, and that is pretty damning, whether it is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of conspiracy or not.”
Whether the Russian hacking and release of thousands of Democratic Party emails amount to acceptance of help for the Trump campaign is up for debate. The emails, and those that WikiLeaks released later from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked account, were publicly available and reported by many news websites.
But Mr. Schiff’s acknowledgment that collusion “still remains to be seen” shows that nearly a year after the House intelligence panel began its investigation, Democrats are left with a relatively small list of Trump campaign-Russia contacts on which to base a grand conspiracy.
The roster of contacts, some of them apparently innocuous, is a far cry from charges in the infamous Russia-Trump dossier. Paid with funds from the Democratic Party, writer Christopher Steele, a former British spy, told of a supposed “extensive conspiracy between Trump’s campaign team and the Kremlin.”
Mr. Schiff embraced the dossier from the moment the committee kicked off a public hearing in March with then-FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency chief Adm. Mike Rogers.
Mr. Schiff eagerly read Mr. Steele’s felony accusations into the record. Those charges remain unproven, the FBI has told congressional investigators, 17 months after it opened a counterintelligence probe that relied on the dossier. Republicans in Congress also say the dossier’s core collusion charges remain unproven.
For example, there has been no public evidence, as claimed by Mr. Steele, that Trump associates and Russian intelligence worked together to hack the Democrats and spread stolen emails.
Mr. Schiff said on ABC News on Oct. 29: “Now, the question we continue to investigate is, was the campaign coordinating in the Russian help? And that still remains to be seen.”
Liberal news media have referred to “numerous” meetings between Russians and the Trump campaign.
Today, the publicly known pre-Election Day Trump-Russia contacts would seem to be small. Some examples:
• George Papadopoulos, a Trump volunteer national security adviser, told the FBI he met with a Kremlin-linked professor in London who promised dirt on Mrs. Clinton. The professor said Moscow owned “thousands” of her emails.
There is no public evidence he produced those emails. Mr. Papadopoulos failed to fulfill his desire for a Trump visit to Moscow.
Mr. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the date he began as a campaign volunteer. News media have speculated that his cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller will produce evidence against Trump people.
Former campaign workers have told The Washington Times that if Mr. Papadopoulos was in the middle of a Russian conspiracy, it was news to them.
• Carter Page, another national security volunteer adviser, traveled to Moscow to give a public speech at a university in July 2016. He has acknowledged the trip was ill-timed. He denies the dossier’s charge that he met with two Kremlin figures and discussed bribes and sanctions.
He has sued Yahoo News for libel for reporting Mr. Steele’s assertion. His is one of five libel lawsuits involving three plaintiffs accused by Mr. Steele and his dossier.
Mr. Page, an energy investor and consultant, lived in Moscow in the 2000s, so maintaining Russian contacts would not be unusual.
• Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, met in June 2016 with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer tied to the Kremlin. At Trump Tower, campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner also attended the meeting.
Mr. Trump Jr. said Ms. Veselnitskaya promised opposition research on Mrs. Clinton. But her real purpose was to lobby against a U.S. sanctions law hated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Democrats view her as a Putin agent trying to win an agreement from Trump associates to curtail sanctions.
Mr. Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting at the suggestion of Rob Goldstone, a public relations operative linked to a Russian oligarch who did business with the elder Mr. Trump. Mr. Goldstone told the news media that Ms. Veselnitskaya promised evidence of illegal campaign donations to Mrs. Clinton but produced nothing.
The meeting occurred June 9, five days before the Democratic National Committee and its tech security contractor, CrowdStrike, announced that the Democrats had been hacked by Russian operatives.
From that point on, Russia became increasingly radioactive for Mr. Trump. On July 22, WikiLeaks started posting a huge number of Democratic Party emails that the U.S. intelligence community says were stolen by the Russians.
Several Trump campaign aides had contacts with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador in Washington during the election.
J.D. Gordon, a national security adviser, spoke with Mr. Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The State Department sponsored the trip by the ambassador along with scores of other diplomats.
Mr. Kislyak also met with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions on Capitol Hill and encountered him at the convention and at a Trump event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
There is no public evidence that these brief encounters were part of a Russian-Trump conspiracy.
Another Trump campaign adviser caught up in the Russia investigation is Michael Caputo. He volunteered to testify before the House intelligence committee after hearing a Democrat disparage his name because he lived for a time in Moscow, worked for a U.S. nonprofit there and briefly represented a Moscow energy firm.
Asked by The Times about his view of Mr. Schiff’s collusion hunt, Mr. Caputo said Wednesday: “Rep. Schiff was a gentleman to me in my [intelligence committee] hearing. He asked probing questions about a wide range of topics. It was clear to me five months ago he was fishing. At some point, a good fisherman knows when to reel in his lure and move on. I don’t think Rep. Schiff is a good fisherman.”
Mr. Caputo said he had no election contacts with Russian representatives.
It is clear that Moscow was reaching out to the Trump campaign. The candidate promised better relations with Mr. Putin, particularly in the fight against the Islamic State group. Mr. Trump also suggested (he said he was joking) that Moscow could find the 33,000 personal emails that Mrs. Clinton ordered destroyed from her tenure as secretary of state.
Republicans say Mr. Schiff and his committee allies are relying on the dossier’s gossip-style information from unknown Kremlin figures paid by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and the DNC. That is clear evidence of Russia-Democratic Party collusion, they say.