The House intelligence committee has completed its “Choose Your Own Adventure” story about the Russia imbroglio. Republicans wrote a happy ending for President Trump. Democrats wrote a cliffhanger.
Even though members of the committee say they’re taking separate ramps off this highway, however, the road goes ever on. Here are 4 more mileposts still to come in the remainder of the Russia imbroglio.
1. The House intelligence committee’s final report
Democrats are already unhappy with it, but the leaders of the House intelligence committee say their report is complete. It could land with a thud: It’s more than 150 pages, includes more than 40 findings and makes 25 recommendations.
For now, though, it’s still secret. First, Democrats in the committee’s minority need to “review” it — although they’ve already made clear how they feel — and then it must be declassified by the intelligence community before it can become public.
Will it include any new information? The House committee’s dueling Republican and Democratic memoranda in February both shed new factual light on the Russia story, even though they were both partisan documents.
Republicans’ memo focused heavily on the facts involved with what they call abuse of power by the FBI and Justice Department, revealing, for example, that the author of the infamous, unverified Russia dossier was a Never-Trumper.
Democrats countered in their memo by revealing that some of the dossier was, in fact, verified by the FBI, and that more people in the Trump camp were under investigation than previously known — though all those details remain secret.
Will the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Devin Nunes, R-Calif., break more new ground in his report or simply make an argument exonerating Trump based on what’s already public?
The Senate intelligence committee and Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, however, aren’t quitting yet — of which more below. So Nunes’ strategy boils down to a bet on time: He has cleared Trump, but how many revelations could still be coming that he doesn’t know he doesn’t know about?
One basic point of contention between Republicans and Democrats is over interpreting the facts in the Russia case. Republicans say, in effect, nothing in evidence today shows that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government’s attack on the 2016 election or did anything wrong.
Contacts that took place between Trump aides and Russians before and after Election Day showed, at worst, bad judgment by the Americans involved, said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, — not an international conspiracy.
Democrats argue that’s not only not so — they believe the evidence does show collusion — but that Republicans won’t do the kind of investigation that would uncover new facts they don’t want. House intelligence committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., listed several witnesses he said the Republican majority wouldn’t interview, the subpoenas it won’t issue and the documents it won’t use its power to obtain.
Republicans, in short, want to fight on the political battlefield in its present condition, build a firebreak and then move on to what they call the next phase of the story: safeguarding future elections.
That was the line House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office took after Nunes’ announcement:
“After more than a year investigating Russia’s actions in the 2016 election, we are well into the primary season for the 2018 elections and experts are warning that we need to safeguard against further interference,” said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong. “That’s what this next phase is about and we hope Democrats will join us in seeing this through.”
2. The Senate intelligence committee’s report
House intelligence committee Republicans’ decision to wrap up their Russia investigation puts subtle pressure on their colleagues in the other chamber. The relationship between the two committees is, if not broken, badly damaged after complaints of leaks and counter-leaks about their work on the Russia case.
Now Republicans on the House side of the Capitol are in a position to say: We’ve done our work. What’s taking you so long?
Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., has tried to keep his panel inside the guardrails and his working relationship cordial with Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., — a mirror image of the partisan corrosion on the House side.
But they still have letters after their names and contrasting incentives in the same way every member of Congress does. Navigating those dynamics is just as fraught, although it plays out in a more senatorial and clandestine fashion.
“I have said publicly — and been criticized for it — that our committee was created to operate in secrecy,” Burr said last month. “I believe that’s where we perform our best work.”
People familiar with the Senate committee’s internal workings have questioned whether it will be able to conclude its work with a single report, or whether its work product might also fission apart in the way the House intelligence committee has.
That may depend on how different its findings are from the House and whether its slower and more bipartisan approach yields facts that could change the political state of play that Nunes and his compatriots have embraced.
3. The administration’s studies
Facets of the executive branch are also at work on studies about the Russian attack on the 2016 election and how to defend the electoral system this year and beyond:
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a cyber-study.
- FBI Director Christopher Wray says the bureau has an international interference task force.
- Even President Trump — who has lately acknowledged the Russian interference effort while still denying any involvement with it – said there is a “very, very deep study” that would yield some “strong suggestions on the ’18 election.”
What isn’t clear is what will ultimately issue from all this work. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have already begun working with state elections officials about cyber-threats and security. Will there be a major new official report from within the Trump administration, or perhaps more than one?
If Nunes’ vision of the Russia story is correct, all the evidence that exists is all there will be. That may mean Trump and his advisers feel more confident about discussing the general issue of election interference — and that could bring about another new phase in the Russia story.
There have already been some indications that a page has turned, as when Trump said last week that he isn’t concerned about Russian influence on the 2018 midterms.
“We’ll counteract whatever they do,” the president said. “We’ll counteract it very strongly.”
4. More action by the special counsel’s office?
Special counsel Robert Mueller is the joker in this pack. No one truly knows what’s up his sleeve except him and his team. So far he has charged a number of Americans and Russians — or concluded guilty pleas about lying to the FBI — but accused no Trump aides with conspiring directly with the Russian interference.
If that stands, it’ll be a boost for the White House many times greater than the one it got from House intelligence committee Republicans this week.
If it changes and people within the Trump orbit do face indictment over alleged conspiracy with the active measures, the work of Nunes and his colleagues this week would be badly undercut.