BY JOE CONASON
Like crooked cops protecting a mafia don, the House Intelligence Committee looked the other way when drafting its closing report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Denying the obvious – and the shared assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies – the committee’s Republican majority insisted that the Russians weren’t truly seeking to elect Donald Trump, and actually may have meant to promote his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The committee also ignored the mounting indications of connivance between the Trump campaign and various Kremlin-connected entities, echoing the president’s “NO COLLUSION” denials.
It wasn’t the best moment to sell such pablum to the public. Within days, we learned that Trump campaign consultants at Cambridge Analytica illegally obtained data from 50 million Facebook accounts that were used for “psychographic” voter manipulation. Overseen by former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon, Cambridge Analytica is the same outfit that reached out to WikiLeaks to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Even before the committee’s minority Democrats could issue a full response, the laughter that greeted the official whitewash left its authors embarrassed enough to try walking back their most ridiculous claims. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-TX, the deputy chair, insisted that they hadn’t meant to exonerate the Trump campaign of collusion, but had merely failed to find any evidence beyond signs of “bad judgment.”
But to read the Democratic response is to realize that the majority didn’t exert much energy to uncover facts that might contradict their happy predigested conclusions. Indeed, the catalog of witnesses, documents and topics neglected or ignored in the committee’s “investigation” will startle even the most jaded observer. Clearly, the Republican effort continued in the spirit of Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the committee chair forced to recuse himself from the Russia probe last year after his melodramatic meltdown at the White House.
According to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, ranking Democrat, the committee never interviewed or obtained documents from important figures in the Trump campaign, including Reince Priebus, who became White House chief of staff; Stephen Miller, still a senior adviser to the president; KT McFarland, who was deputy to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, since convicted of lying to the FBI; former press secretary Sean Spicer; former campaign aide Sam Nunberg; and several others.
Nor did the committee bother to interview Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Kremlin emissary who met with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, to discuss “dirt” on Clinton – even though the Russian lawyer agreed to testify.
Moreover, the committee allowed several marquee names in this scandal to assert dubious claims of privilege – notably Kushner, Trump Jr., Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, former Trump aides Hope Hicks and Steve Bannon as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions – rather than insist that they provide complete testimony and documents under threat of subpoena. This surrender of Congressional authority to the White House bore a sad resemblance to the behavior of bogus legislatures under authoritarian regimes.
The list of what the committee didn’t do goes on and on. It made no effort to contact “relevant personnel” at Cambridge Analytica or to retrieve documents that would shed light on that firm’s attempts to obtain stolen Democratic National Committee emails from WikiLeaks, which was acting as a “cut-out” for the Kremlin.
It didn’t examine the new evidence of connections between the Kremlin and the National Rifle Association, particularly the gun lobby’s generous friend Alexander Torshin, a Russian banker and politician with very close ties to Vladimir Putin.
And it never brought back Erik Prince, the spooky security entrepreneur, Trump pal and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who convened a secret meeting with Kremlin representatives in the Seychelles Islands – and almost certainly didn’t tell the whole truth.
This Keystone Kops clowning is what the committee describes, in the typically self-serving idiom of Capitol Hill, as “robust oversight of the threat posed by Moscow.”
Perhaps worst of all, considering that experts now believe we face another Russian incursion in the 2018 midterm elections, was the committee’s refusal to fully confront that threat and provide serious guidance to repel it. The Democrats complain that the GOP majority has shut down without talking to officials from the FBI’s new Foreign Influence Task Force, the National Association of Secretaries of State, the Department of Homeland Security and independent experts focused on election security.
At the very least, the minority report correctly admonishes that the committee “should have held open hearings on election security to clarify the extent of Russia’s intrusion into our election systems, highlight vulnerabilities in our elections infrastructure, and identify the technical and other solutions necessary to protect our country.”
Of course, that assumes the crooked cops intend to protect the country, rather than just themselves and their mob boss. Which is no longer a wise assumption for anyone who cares about American democracy.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer