Two days ago, the Republican leadership of the House Intelligence Committee made a startling claim: The US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia tried to help President Trump win the White House was flatly wrong.
Now leading GOP members of the panel — including its chair — are already walking away from the claim and grudgingly admitting the Kremlin worked to undermine Hillary Clinton and boost Trump.
“Everyone gets to make their own mind whether or not they are trying to hurt Hillary or help Trump,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), who led the House intelligence probe, said to reporters on Tuesday. “It is kind of the glass half-full, glass half-empty, depending how you look at it.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) — best known for his investigations into the deadly 2012 attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya — said Tuesday that Putin had been “motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm her candidacy or undermine her presidency had she prevailed.”
Gowdy spokesperson Amanda Gonzalez told me Wednesday that the Congress member didn’t see a difference between liking Trump and hating Clinton — which means that Gowdy is backing away from the Republican claim even more explicitly than Conaway.
“In a binary race, hoping one candidate will lose is tantamount to hoping the other candidate prevails,” Gonzalez said.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who has served on the committee since 2015, told Vox that the original Republican assertion that Moscow hadn’t tried to help Trump may not even make it into the final report. A 150-page draft report was sent to Democrats Tuesday; it’s not clear when it will be made public, or what changes — if any — Republicans will agree to make beforehand.
“It still looks like officially their report will say that there was a preference for Donald Trump,” Swalwell said in an interview. If true, that would mean the report itself would be at odds with Conaway’s initial assertions that Moscow hadn’t tried to help Trump.
The GOP retreat in assertions about Russia’s election meddling is the latest blow to the credibility of the House Republicans’ investigation, which Democrats have steadily derided as a partisan farce aimed at defending Trump from accusations of collusion rather than actually uncovering the truth.
On Tuesday night, Democrats fleshed out their critique and released a detailed 21-page list of investigative leads they say Republicans on the panel ignored, including 30 witnesses — like White House advisers Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway — that weren’t interviewed.
Republicans just attacked the US intelligence community. Then they retreated.
In January 2017, the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA issued a report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The report, which represented the consensus view of the three agencies, said that Russia was initially focused on harming Clinton but “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Earlier this week, however, House Republicans on the Intelligence Committee explicitly rejected that conclusion. Conaway told reporters that while the House investigation’s findings lined up with 98 percent of the intelligence community’s assessment, he and the GOP members of the panel “disagree with the narrative that [the Russians] were trying to help Trump.”
Democrats, to put it mildly, think differently. Rep. Adam Schiff said on Tuesday that Republicans were “prematurely shutting down the Russia investigation,” and the nine Democrats on the panel argue that Conaway refused to pursue an array of promising leads. As the minority party, Democrats don’t have subpoena power or the ability to hold hearings, so they’ve chosen a different tack: publicly detailing leads they say Republicans should have — but didn’t — chase down.
The Democrats say Republicans should have forced tech companies like Apple, Twitter, and WhatsApp to provide access to messages Trump’s campaign team sent to other aides as well as to outside organizations like WikiLeaks.
Democrats also wanted Republicans to have made sure firms like Google, Facebook, and Snapchat turned over more information about Russia’s potential use of social media accounts to spread messages that undercut Clinton and boosted Trump. (On February 17 special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for their work using social media to meddle in the US election.)
The Democratic wish list doesn’t end there. They also say Republicans should have dug into a little-known Trump aide named Tera Dahl, who held a senior role in his campaign and served as the deputy chief of staff at the National Security Council after Trump took office.
The Trump Campaign’s foreign outreach initiative
Dahl, who would later become a formal campaign staffer, was part of the foreign policy advisory office the Trump campaign set up in April 2016, shortly after Trump announced a slew of new advisers, including Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, to his team.
After the foreign policy office was established, Trump adviser Walid Phares suggested to the head of the office that the campaign try to establish contact with foreign diplomats, according to people familiar with the initiative.
Dahl was tasked with running the initiative, with two people who worked with the Trump campaign saying that the outreach was in part to try to preemptively sell Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” to the leaders of other countries. The people familiar with the matter said Dahl and other advisers on the foreign policy team debated how to convince foreign leaders it was a good idea.
The initiative began in early April, and members of the advisory team staff met with the Italian ambassador to the US and had scheduled a meeting with Spain’s ambassador before senior Trump campaign officials shut down the outreach program. All told, it lasted less than a month.
“It was a short-lived initiative,” a campaign adviser said. “Her liaison with foreign diplomats was essentially cut off after a few weeks by campaign headquarters in New York.”
Dahl, a close ally of former White House strategist Steve Bannon, has largely remained out of the spotlight after she resigned from the National Security Council in July. White House officials said Dahl wanted to move to a policy role and would shift over to the US Agency for International Development. Dahl did not end up moving over to the agency, and instead left the government for a job in the private sector.
Here’s why Democrats are so interested in her. In July 2016, then-Trump aide Carter Page sent her and another Trump adviser an email offering to report back on a planned trip to Moscow that month. Page said that he’d send “a readout soon regarding some incredible insights and outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the Presidential administration here.”
Those Russian “insights” are precisely why Democrats think Dahl should have been compelled to testify.
“The Committee has reason to believe that Ms. Dahl would have insight into Trump campaign-related meetings and calls with foreign persons, including Russian officials or representatives,” Schiff said when he released his critique of the Republican probe on Tuesday night.
With Republicans formally closing their probe earlier this week, Dahl won’t be testifying anytime soon — if ever. Still, Swalwell, the California House member, said Democrats on the panel would continue to release information that they fear Republicans will deliberately leave out of their final report.
“We’re not done,” Swalwell told me.