- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, but campaign members’ frequent contact with people linked to the Kremlin raised counterintelligence concerns, according to a bipartisan report released Tuesday.

The fifth and final volume of the panel’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election largely mirrored the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller‘s probe, which also failed to show a Trump-Russia conspiracy.

Mr. Mueller, who wrapped up his investigation last year, confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election but did so without coordination from the Trump campaign.

Still, the intelligence committee went beyond Mr. Mueller‘s conclusions in several key ways.

Among the report’s most important revelations were concerns that President Trump‘s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort had ties to people linked to the Russian government; Russian officials tried to exploit the inexperience of Mr. Trump‘s transition team; and candidate Trump closely watched WikiLeaks’ release of damaging emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.



The panel assailed the FBI for failing to verify allegations of a salacious, unverified dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. FBI agents relied on the dossier, in part, to obtain a warrant to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

Steele dossier

Committee members dinged the FBI for failing to take the necessary steps to validate Mr. Steele’s conclusions and not giving the dossier closer scrutiny after a subsource raised concerns about its reliability.

As of the date of the report, “almost all” assertions in the Steele dossier remain unverified, said the intelligence committee, which is led by acting Chairman Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat. Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, was chairman for most of the committee‘s probe.

The FBI gave the Steele dossier “unjustified credence” and failed to change course even after one of Mr. Steele’s subsources raised serous concerns about his accuracy, according to the report.

“Steele’s reporting lacked rigor and transparency about the quality of the sourcing,” the senators wrote.

The panel’s conclusions ultimately dispute Mr. Trump‘s claims that Russian interference was a hoax, but it also counters Democrats’ claims that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the election.

Differing conclusions

The mixed results left Republicans and Democrats drawing different conclusions as Election Day approaches.

Republicans and Mr. Trump‘s reelection campaign hailed the findings as an exoneration, reviving their frequent complaint that the Russia collusion investigation was a hoax.

The report’s “additional views” section highlights the partisan divide in the panel’s conclusions. Republicans on the committee wrote that the investigation shows, “with no doubt, there was no collusion.”

But Democrats wrote that the evidence amassed in the probe shows “what collusion looks like.”

Still, Mr. Trump‘s campaign highlighted the report’s findings.

“As this report proves — yet again — there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign,” said campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “The report does remind Americans that there was, however, political reliance on foreign assistance in 2016, since Hillary Clinton‘s campaign and the DNC paid for the bogus Steele dossier assembled by a foreign operative using Russian disinformation.”

Mr. Rubio seized on the findings related to the FBI’s handling of the Steele dossier.

“We found irrefutable evidence of Russian meddling,” he said in a statement. “And we discovered deeply troubling actions taken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, particularly their acceptance and willingness to rely on the ‘Steele dossier’ without verifying its methodology or sourcing.”

Mr. Warner called the level of contact between Trump officials and Russian operatives “breathtaking” and “a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections.”

“I encourage all Americans to carefully review the documented evidence of the unprecedented and massive intervention campaign waged on behalf of then-candidate Donald Trump by Russians and their operatives and to reach their own independent conclusions,” Mr. Warner said.

Paul Manafort

Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian businessman who once worked for Manafort, was identified in the Senate report as “a Russian intelligence officer.”

In the Mueller report, Mr. Kilimnik is said only to have “ties to Russian intelligence.” He has repeatedly disputed that allegation.

The committee said it had obtained some information that Mr. Kilimnik was connected to a Russian hack-and-leak operation targeting the 2016 election.

The senators said Manafort‘s top-level campaign access and willingness to share information with Mr. Kilimnik represented “a grave counterintelligence threat,” the report said.

The committee said it was “unable to determine why” Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data and campaign strategy with Mr. Kilimnik or whether Mr. Kilimnik passed along that information.

After the election, Manafort continued to work with Mr. Kilminik and others to undermine evidence of Russian interference, the report said.

Manafort was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2018 on financial fraud charges arising from the Mueller probe. He was released from federal prison this year because of the coronavirus crisis.

Transition team

Russia took advantage of the inexperience among members of Mr. Trump‘s transition team as well as their desire to roll back Obama-era policies to create “unofficial channels” through which it could connect to the incoming administration.

“The existence of a cadre of informal advisers to the transition team with varying levels of access to the president-elect and varying awareness of foreign affairs presented attractive targets for foreign influence, creating notable counterintelligence vulnerabilities,” the committee wrote in the report.

The lack of vetting by the transition team left it open to “influence and manipulation” to foreign intelligence services, the panel wrote.

WikiLeaks

Another key finding in the report is that WikiLeaks “likely knew” it was aiding Russian efforts to influence the election when it published hacked emails from the DNC and Mrs. Clinton‘s campaign.

U.S. intelligence agencies previously raised questions about whether the anti-secrecy group and its founder, Julian Assange, were aware that they were helping Russian efforts.

The report also said there is strong evidence that Mr. Trump kept close tabs on WikiLeaks’ releases through longtime friend Roger Stone.

Stone was convicted last year of lying to Congress about his efforts to connect with WikiLeaks to learn more about its upcoming releases.

The finding raises questions about Mr. Trump‘s written responses to the Mueller team in which he said he did not recall any conversations about WikiLeaks.

“The committee assesses that Trump did, in fact, speak with Stone about WikiLeaks and with members of his campaign about Stone’s access to WikiLeaks on multiple occasions,” the report said.

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