The House’s Collusion Investigation Ends

Rep. Devin Nunes speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md., February 24, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
An Intelligence Committee majority rejects ‘the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.’

The House Intelligence Committee has concluded that there is “no evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy” between the Trump campaign and the Russian regime. That was what Congressman K. Michael Conaway (R., Texas) announced yesterday evening, in the course of explaining that the committee has ended the investigative phase of its probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The Republican-controlled committee also found, Conaway added, that “the Russians did commit active measures” against the U.S. election and would continue attempting to do so in the future. But the committee majority rejects “the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”

The conclusion of the investigative phase means the committee has ceased interviewing witnesses and will now finalize its written report, currently said to be a 150-page draft. The final report, Conaway said, would address the four topics on which the committee’s investigation focused: Russian meddling in the election, the U.S. government’s response to that meddling, links between the Putin regime and both major-party campaigns, and leaks of classified information.

Representative Conaway has taken the lead in this aspect of the committee’s work since last April, when Chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) stepped aside. Democrats had accused Nunes of leaking classified information. Nunes, who has since been cleared by the House Ethics Committee, had announced at a news conference that the Obama administration had collected intelligence on associates of Donald Trump (and perhaps Trump himself) during the transition following the 2016 election.

The Intelligence Committee is deeply divided along partisan lines. It took the ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, little time to rip the decision to end the investigation. By what he described as “ending its oversight role,” Schiff said, the committee’s Republicans had elevated “the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country.”

For his part, the president pounced on the announcement. Monday night produced an all-caps tweet:

This reaction, naturally, will amp up the Democrats’ storyline that committee Republicans have been colluding with the White House from the start. Nevertheless, Schiff’s clamor to continue the investigation is at least as driven by partisanship as the GOP decision to close it.

The House probe has run parallel to the investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s mini-empire of 17 lawyers and scores of federal agents. The Mueller probe has ensued for ten months, after taking over a counterintelligence investigation that had already been ongoing for over a year. (It was in September 2015 that the FBI first advised the Democratic National Committee that its computer network may have been hacked.)

Note that a congressional committee has at its disposal considerably less investigative authority and resources than do prosecutors. Yet, despite charging four men who were both associated with the Trump campaign and in contact with Kremlin-tied operatives, Mueller has not alleged any criminal conspiracy between the Trump associates and the Putin regime.

Instead, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos have pled guilty to lying to investigators. Richard Gates has pled guilty to lying to investigators and to a minor conspiracy charge involving his lobbying work on behalf of a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian political party, mostly between 2004 and 2014. And Paul Manafort, who was indicted with his partner, Gates, on these charges unrelated to the 2016 campaign, is awaiting trial later this year.

Meanwhile, Mueller has also filed an indictment against 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies for conducting influence operations, primarily through social media, directed at the 2016 election and its aftermath. Those operations, which appear remote from the original hacking allegations that spurred the counterintelligence investigation, were but a drop in the ocean of campaign messaging. Moreover, some of Russia’s shenanigans predated Trump’s entry into the race, and some were directed against Trump. To the extent there were supportive entreaties toward the Trump campaign, these are alleged to have been unsolicited, not conspiratorial.

These results of Mueller’s probe have obviously informed the committee majority’s conclusion that Putin’s support for Trump is more the stuff of Democratic political narrative than reality. For what it’s worth, I drew a similar inference when Mueller indicted the Russian nationals:

The Kremlin hoped to sow discord in our society and thus paralyze our government’s capacity to pursue American interests. The Russian strategy was to stir up the resentments of sizable losing factions. It is not that Putin wanted Trump to win; it is that Putin figured Trump was going to lose. That is why the Kremlin tried to galvanize Trump supporters against Clinton, just as it tried to galvanize Sanders supporters against Clinton, and Trump supporters against Cruz and Rubio, during the primaries. It is why the Russians suddenly choreographed anti-Trump rallies after Trump won. The palpable goal was to promote dysfunction: Cripple a likely President Clinton before she could even get started, wound President Trump from the get-go when he unexpectedly won, and otherwise set American against American whenever possible.

Of course, the Mueller investigation is continuing and we are privy to neither its inner workings nor the non-public information it has assembled. By all outward appearances, however, the special counsel lacks evidence of actionable collusion with Russia. As I have stressed, if he had such a case, he would have induced his cooperating defendants to plead guilty to a conspiracy, explain the criminal nature of any collusion, and implicate other conspirators. He would not have taken false-statements pleas, which indicate only some obstruction of the investigative process and serve only to brand accomplice witnesses as liars — which is not the way to build a prosecution.

There is no shame in not filing such conspiracy charges.

There is no shame in not filing such conspiracy charges. The prosecutor’s task is to find out what happened and justly account for it, not to make a case where there isn’t one. The salient point, though, is that if Mueller has not found actionable collusion, notwithstanding his formidable resources and zeal, there is no way the House Intelligence Committee is going to find it.

Relatedly, while the committee composes its final report on the so-called Russia-gate aspect of the 2016 election, its probe of the investigative tactics employed by the FBI and the Justice Department — the “FISA-gate” aspect — will continue.

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