War Stories

Senate Republicans Contradict Trump on Russian Interference

But the biggest mysteries of the 2016 election remain unsolved.

Putin smiles as Trump looks on.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In what amounts to a sharp rebuke to President Donald Trump’s views on the subject, the Republican-chaired Senate Intelligence Committee released a 158-page report on Tuesday, concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin did interfere in the 2016 election, with the aim of denigrating Hillary Clinton and boosting Trump’s chances of winning.

The report also states that the U.S. intelligence community’s analysis of Putin’s campaign, which came to the same conclusion, was a “sound intelligence product,” written “under no politically motivated pressure to reach specific conclusions.” (That analysis was ordered by President Barack Obama near the end of his term and finished three weeks before Trump took office.)

Although the report’s authors don’t take issue with Trump’s claims explicitly, Sen. Ron Wyden, the committee’s ranking Democrat, highlights the contrast in a brief minority report. Wyden recalls that Trump had denounced the intelligence community’s findings as a “hoax,” citing as evidence the fact that Putin had “very strongly” denied them. “Trump’s deference to Putin,” Wyden writes, “only serves to further Russian disinformation and undermine efforts to defend the United States” against similar attacks in the upcoming election.

The report dismisses several other assertions that Trump and his allies have made. For instance, Trump has often claimed that the investigation of Russian interference was sparked by the Steele dossier, a report—written by a former British intelligence agent, as part of opposition research—that further charged that Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians. However, the Senate report concludes, “The Steele material did not in any way inform the analysis in the ICA [Intelligence Community Assessment]—including its key judgments.”

For one thing, the report states, the Steele dossier was not even among the materials circulated for the assessment. For another, the FBI opened its investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible coordination with Russia on July 30, 2016—well before the dossier was complete.

The Senate report started out as a highly classified document, based on 25 interviews with more than 40 intelligence officials, as well as many follow-up conversations and emails. The just released, declassified version is heavily redacted; many chapters, especially those detailing each intelligence agency’s reporting, are blacked out almost entirely.

Neither the witnesses nor the report’s authors address whether Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russians, mainly because the intelligence agencies—including the CIA and NSA—refused, as a matter of policy and principle, to investigate American citizens, leaving that question to the FBI. The FBI turned the inquiry over to special counsel Robert Mueller, who decided not to pursue any matters involving counterintelligence, leaving that subject to the Justice Department.

But given that Attorney General William Barr acts as if his main job is serving as Trump’s personal lawyer, those inquiries are probably long dead in the water.* And so the most tantalizing pieces of this whole puzzle—what did the president know and when did he know it—remain unsolved.

Correction, April 21, 2020: This article originally misidentified William Barr as Robert Barr.

For more of this week’s political news, listen to Tuesday’s What Next.