clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s new Russia report, explained

It’s strong, bipartisan pushback against the common claim that there was “nothing there.”

Trump with Paul Manafort (center right) during the 2016 Republican convention.
Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the final installment of its years-long investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election on Tuesday, and its report is a strong, bipartisan pushback against the common claim that there was “nothing there.”

The 966-page report (technically volume five of a larger series) contains some new details, and sections redacted for containing classified information imply there’s still more to this story we don’t know. But its real value is reminding Americans that the Russian interference scandal is very real.

“The Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multi-faceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election,” the report, which was co-signed by both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate committee, says. “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president” to WikiLeaks.

Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair, comes under heavy criticism in the report for his “willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services” — this “represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

However, the report goes further than special counsel Robert Mueller did — it claims some information suggests Manafort and a longtime associate of his, Konstantin Kilimnik, were “connected” to the Russian government’s effort to hack and leak Democrats’ emails. These details are redacted, though.

The report also retells the story of how Roger Stone tried to get inside information on WikiLeaks’ plans at the behest of the Trump campaign. “Stone obtained information indicating that John Podesta would be a target of an upcoming release,” the report says. It also describes Jerome Corsi’s claims that Stone tried to get WikiLeaks to time the release of Podesta’s emails to distract from the Access Hollywood tape.

There are many other topics addressed in the report, including some criticism for how the FBI handled the “Steele dossier” allegations about Trump. There are also matters that remain murky — most notably, the purpose and extent of Manafort’s communications with Kilimnik, and the exact nature of the information Stone got regarding WikiLeaks.

The Republican senators on the committee insist, in an “additional views” section at the end of the report, that there is still “no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government in its efforts to meddle in the election.” But overall, the bipartisan body of the report does not reflect well on Trump or his team.

The main question has always been about the email hacking and leaking

Last year, Mueller wrapped up his investigation without criminally charging any Trump campaign officials with conspiring with the Russian government into interference with the 2016 election. Since then, Trump’s defenders have argued that he was right all along that there was “no collusion,” and Mueller’s critics on both the right and left have questioned what the whole thing was about, anyway.

Indeed, it’s true that the most lurid and speculative theories about Trump’s connection to Russia — say, that he’s been a Kremlin asset since 1987 or that he’s being blackmailed with a pee tape — have not been validated and have in some cases been outright debunked to the extent that’s possible.

But it’s important not to forget that a crime really did unfold in plain sight in 2016 — Democratic officials’ private and personal correspondence was hacked and posted publicly, leading to a slew of negative news stories about them (which Trump frequently referred to on the campaign trail).

The hacking, Mueller conclusively documented, was carried out by officers of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. The leaked documents were mainly posted by WikiLeaks — the group posted emails from the DNC in July 2016, and emails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta in October 2016.

Trump’s team disclaimed any involvement in all this. But arguably the central question hanging over the Mueller investigation was whether they were, in fact, involved in the hacks or leaks in some way — and if so, whether that involvement amounted to a crime.

Mueller did not end up charging any Trump officials with crimes related to the hack and leak. He also found that the hacks themselves appear to have been carried out entirely by Russian intelligence officers. The full story of what happened with the leaks is more complicated — and the new Senate report adds new complications.

The curious case of Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort walks outside the William B. Bryant US Courthouse Annex on October 30, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort, a globetrotting political consultant who made millions working for Ukraine’s pro-Russian political faction, was always a major focus of collusion questions, and of Mueller’s investigation. Mueller eventually charged Manafort with various financial and other crimes connected to his Ukraine work. After being convicted at trial on one set of charges in 2018, Manafort pleaded guilty to other charges.

But none of these crimes were directly about conspiring with the Russian government to affect the election. And while Mueller’s report did disclose that Manafort shared internal Trump campaign polling data to his longtime associate, Russian national Konstantin Kilimnik, he did not make any allegations of Manafort being centrally involved in a conspiracy with the Russian government.

Now, the new Senate report has an extremely long and harsh section on Manafort, both claiming that his presence on the campaign posed “a grave counterintelligence threat” and even reopening questions about whether Manafort was involved in the Russian interference campaign itself.

“Manafort’s presence on the Campaign and proximity to Trump created opportunities for the Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign,” the report claims.

Most prominently, the report focuses on Kilimnik, who the authors flatly describe as a “Russian intelligence officer.” Kilimnik had worked with Manafort for over a decade and they stayed in touch during 2016, often communicating in code. “The Committee assesses that Kilimnik likely served as a channel to Manafort for Russian intelligence services, and that those services likely sought to exploit Manafort’s access to gain insight info the Campaign,” the authors write.

Yet the report goes further than Mueller ever did by claiming that “some information” suggests Kilimnik himself “may have been connected to the GRU’s hack and leak operation.” The details, though, are unfortunately redacted.

The report then goes on to claim that “two pieces of information” raise “the possibility” that Manafort, too, was connected “to the hack-and-leak operations”:

Again, the details here are redacted, but the few sentences that we can read make reference to Manafort’s former son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, who pleaded guilty to fraud charges.

With so many redactions here, we have no idea what the evidence for this actually is, or how strong it may be. Still, this is a bipartisan report that both Republicans and Democrats signed on to — senators from both parties agreed this stuff, whatever it is, was worth including.

In a statement by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) appended to the end of the report, Wyden complains about “excessive redactions” and says that he is particularly troubled by “indications that Kilimnik, and Manafort himself, were connected to Russia’s hack-and-leak operations.” He adds: “Significant aspects of this story remain hidden from the American public.”

Revisiting Roger Stone

Roger Stone speaks to reporters at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 11, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The other long-hanging question about the Trump campaign and the email leaks is about what, exactly, Roger Stone did.

Stone was indicted by Mueller for making false statements and obstructing a congressional investigation, and was convicted at trial last year (though Trump commuted his sentence last month).

Evidence and testimony presented at Stone’s trial made clear that Stone tried to get information from WikiLeaks about their forthcoming releases, and that Stone told the Trump campaign that he had a relationship with WikiLeaks and tried to take credit for their actions. Emails also show that Stone was hearing about Podesta-related leaks nearly two months before news of Podesta’s hack was public.

So Stone may have gotten inside information. There’s also been a claim that he went even further — that he urged WikiLeaks to release the Podesta material at a specific time, to distract from the release of the Access Hollywood tape (in which Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitals).

Yet establishing what actually happened here has been difficult, because so much of it involves conservative writer and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.

Corsi appears to have been Stone’s source of information about WikiLeaks. And, in an initial interview with Mueller’s team, Corsi “explained” that while he was traveling in Italy in August 2016, “someone told him Assange had the Podesta emails” (per the report). Yet he said he couldn’t recall who told him, saying only that “it feels like a man.” Then, in a later interview with Mueller’s team, Corsi changed his story, saying he had simply deduced this information himself.

Corsi also gave a detailed account of how Stone learned in advance that the Washington Post had the Access Hollywood tape story coming out. Corsi said that Stone wanted to get word to WikiLeaks to “drop the Podesta emails immediately” to distract from this coming news.

Much of this information was actually in the Mueller report, but it was initially redacted to avoid prejudicing Stone’s trial. A version containing many fewer redactions was released earlier this summer. It reveals that Mueller’s team investigated these claims by Corsi but, per their own report, “found little corroboration for his allegations about the day.” Mueller concluded: “The investigation was unable to resolve whether Stone played a role in WikiLeaks’s release of the stolen Podesta emails on October 7, 2016.”

Still, there is a great deal of evidence that Stone very much wanted to hide his communications with Jerome Corsi regarding WikiLeaks. (He concocted a cover story claiming the only person who gave him information was radio host Randy Credico, and emails show that’s flatly false.)

But the Senate report comes to a similar conclusion as Mueller did: “The Committee could not reliably determine the extent of authentic, non-public knowledge about WikiLeaks that Stone obtained and shared with the Campaign.” That is: whatever happened with Stone and WikiLeaks still remains a mystery.

Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.