President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation has exonerated him, finding “NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION” between his campaign and Russia. The tweet is misleading since the committee’s report is not yet complete.
But committee chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) did recently tell reporters that after a lengthy investigation, he had not yet seen evidence of collusion. And NBC News reported Tuesday that Democratic committee sources also acknowledge their probe has so far uncovered “no direct evidence” of a conspiracy to interfere with the election — though they said the pattern of contacts between Trump’s team and Russia they uncovered was troubling.
The committee has reportedly conducted more than 200 interviews, reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents, and conducted the most thorough, bipartisan congressional investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. (Burr, it should be noted, also advised Trump’s campaign on national security, though he has shown some willingness to occasionally push back against the president.)
Now Burr is basically saying that after all that, the committee has found no smoking gun of collusion. Democrats aren’t really disputing that, though they’ve said what they have found is troubling enough. The committee’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, said Tuesday that he won’t describe his conclusions until the investigation is finished.
It’s important to note, though, that this investigation has been carried out completely separately from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, and did not have all the investigatory tools available to Mueller. The special counsel’s investigation remains ongoing.
What Trump is saying
On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted a boast about what he characterized as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that “THERE IS NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION BETWEEN THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND RUSSIA!”
The Senate Intelligence Committee: THERE IS NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION BETWEEN THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND RUSSIA!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 13, 2019
Trump’s tweet is misleading. While Burr, the chair of the committee, did say during a recent interview with CBS News that “If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia,” Warner, the committee’s ranking member, has since publicly disagreed with that view.
“Respectfully, I disagree,” Warner said on Tuesday. “I’m not going to get into any conclusions I’ve reached because my basis of this has been that I’m not going to reach any conclusion until we finish the investigation. And we still have a number of the key witnesses to come back.”
Trump has repeatedly suggested on Twitter that Burr, who served as a senior national security adviser during his campaign, speaks for the whole committee. He doesn’t. The state of play was more accurately captured by a tweet Trump posted on February 7 in which he highlighted Burr’s conclusion but refrained from putting words in any other senator’s mouth.
Highly respected Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of Senate Intelligence, said today that, after an almost two year investigation, he saw no evidence of Russia collusion. “We don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.” Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2019
While it might be tempting to downplay Burr’s comments — after all, he served on Trump’s campaign, so he’s not exactly an objective source — he’s apparently not alone. NBC reports that some unnamed Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee agree with him that they’ve seen no evidence of collusion so far.
Why the Senate Intelligence Committee’s conclusion matters
The Senate Intelligence Committee has been conducting the only bipartisan congressional investigation into Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and the Trump campaign’s involvement in it.
While former House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) worked in tandem with the White House to try to exonerate Trump and excluded Democrats from his committee’s investigation, Burr has shown more of a willingness to challenge the president’s preferred narratives.
Last summer, for instance, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a memo affirming the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the election and did so to help Trump. While that might not seem like much, it undercut Trump’s assertions that the notion the Kremlin helped him is a “hoax.”
However, few expected the Senate committee to issue the “last word” on what happened during 2016 — the Mueller probe is generally viewed as more extensive and likelier to surface the truth.
But there are reasons to be skeptical of what Barr says
On other occasions, however, Burr has demonstrated an eagerness to help Trump, and a willingness to break with the intelligence community.
In February 2017, for instance, Burr and Nunes were enlisted by the White House to help tamp down media reports about the Trump’s campaign communications with Russia — reports that were later corroborated as more information emerged about the Trump campaign’s extensive and secretive Russia contacts.
Burr and Nunes “made calls to news organizations … in attempts to challenge stories about alleged contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence operatives,” the Washington Post reported. In an interview with the Post, Burr acknowledged communicating with news organizations “to dispute articles by the New York Times and CNN that alleged ‘repeated’ or ‘constant’ contact between Trump campaign members and Russian intelligence operatives.”
Burr’s conduct was criticized by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer saying he had been put “on notice” because his conduct “certainly gives the appearance, if not the reality, of a lack of impartiality.”
Burr eventually seemed to realize that this wasn’t a great look. In July 2017, he told reporters that he planned to stay away from the White House while his committee’s investigation was ongoing.
He also went to great lengths to protect Trump during the campaign. As Ryan Goodman of Just Security details, Burr was notably reluctant to affirm the intelligence community’s October 7, 2016, statement that Russia was responsible for hacking the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. And even though he as a member of the Gang of Eight was briefed in the summer of 2016 by the CIA about the Kremlin’s work on behalf of Trump, Burr made public statements at odds with what the intelligence community was telling him.
“I have yet to see anything that would lead me to believe” Russia was interfering to benefit Trump, Burr said on October 3, 2016, in a comment that differed from what the intelligence community was saying then and hasn’t aged well since.
What is “collusion,” anyway?
An anonymous Democratic aide who spoke to NBC to push back on Burr’s comments took a maximalist view of “collusion.”
“We were never going to find a contract signed in blood saying, ‘Hey, Vlad, we’re going to collude,’” the aide said.
But “collusion” could be a lot less explicit than a blood contract, and it’s worth remembering that we’ve already seen plenty of evidence of collusion. To cite just a few examples:
- Trump secretively pursued lucrative business opportunities in Moscow during a campaign in which the Russian government conspired to help him.
- Trump lied about his business dealings with Russia both during and after the campaign.
- Trump lavished praise on Putin throughout the campaign, and publicly encouraged Russian hackers to “find” Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails.
- The Trump campaign was notified in writing of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” in June 2016 and took a meeting with Kremlin-connected Russians who were offering dirt on Hillary Clinton anyway.
Is any of that “collusion”? Burr seems to think it isn’t. But Warner might think differently.
The investigations aren’t over
While Trump responds to Burr’s comments by spiking the football, Axios reports that “House Democrats plan a vast probe of President Trump and Russia — with a heavy focus on money laundering — that will include multiple committees and dramatic public hearings, and could last into 2020.”
Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigation continues, and the Senate Intelligence Committee has much more work to do too. Democratic Senate investigators told NBC the committee hasn’t finished interviewing people yet, and will take many months to write a final report after that.
Democratic investigators “have uncovered facts yet to be made public, and that they hope to make Americans more fully aware of the extent to which the Russians manipulated the US presidential election with the help of some Trump officials, witting or unwitting,” according to NBC’s Ken Dilanian.
Dilanian continues: “The report, Democrats say, will not be good for Trump.”