Did House Republicans end their Russia investigation prematurely?

Tuesday , March 13, 2018 - 9:01 AM

Amber Phillips

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

To hear Republicans tell it, they’ve done their job: They interviewed 73 witnesses over a period of 14 months and looked at 30,000 of documents - and they’ve reached a conclusion in their Russia investigation. They concluded that there was no collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, but that Russia did intervene in the 2016 election - just not specifically to help Trump.

“We’ve found no evidence of collusion,” the investigation’s leader, Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, told reporters Monday night.

To hear Democrats tell it, Republicans abdicated their job: They didn’t use their power of subpoena to force key witnesses to talk, like outgoing White House communications director Hope Hicks, who dodged most of their questions about Trump in a voluntary interview last month.

“Instead of protecting our democracy, House Republicans have worked overtime to protect President Trump and his family and friends,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, Calif., a top Democrat on the committee, in a statement.

As has been the case lately with this particular committee, we’re left to sift through partisanship to figure out whose reality is closest to actual reality. So let’s do that, by running down the key arguments on both sides and asking legal experts to chime in.

- Democratic claim No. 1: Republicans are glossing over evidence of collusion

First, there was the June 2016 campaign meeting at Trump Tower where Donald Trump Jr. seemed thrilled to potentially receive dirt from the Russians about Hillary Clinton. Legal experts said it likely met the legal bar of collusion.

Then, Trump ally Roger Stone acknowledged to friends he had communicated with WikiLeaks before it dumped Democratic emails that intelligence officials say may have been hacked by Russia.

Democrats look at this and see collusion, or at least evidence of potential collusion.

Republicans say they’ve looked at those same facts and see only “bad judgment” on the Trump campaign’s part, but not any intent to work with the Russians.

What the legal experts say: Until there is evidence of intent to conspire with the Russians, collusion is hard to prove. Watch the special counsel investigation, which is also tasked with figuring out if there was collusion.

- Democratic claim No. 2: Republicans didn’t conduct a through enough investigation

There is still more to do, say Democrats. They want the committee to try to force former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon to talk by holding him in contempt of Congress, or subpoenaing top Trump officials who weren’t forthcoming the first time in the hope they will be the second time. They want to get hold of bank records and other statements to corroborate witnesses’ statements.

“This investigation was conducted in a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ kind of way,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, told NPR’s Morning Edition on Tuesday, criticizing Republicans’ approach.

Republicans say there’s no point in trying to force someone to talk if they won’t. It’s also a fair assumption that Republicans don’t want to force a fight with the White House if they’re not certain they’ll get something.

What the legal experts say: There’s a gaping hole in Republicans’ conclusions about Russia meddling that may back up Democrats on this point. On why Russia meddled in U.S. politics, Republicans came to a different conclusion than the entire U.S. intelligence community. Intelligence experts have concluded Russia did it to help Trump win - the former head of the CIA during the election testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee as much last spring. House Republicans didn’t conclude that.

So Republicans either have evidence that the entire intelligence community lacks, or they are ignoring key evidence. “The facts in the public record already established that the Russians intervened to help Trump win the election and in return, the Trump Administration planned to roll back old sanctions and then blocked new ones enacted by Congress,” Cornell Law Vice Dean Jens David Ohlin told The Post in an email.

Andy Wright, a former congressional lawyer and Obama administration official, also thinks Republicans let key witnesses get away with simply saying they wouldn’t answer questions. “They did not complete their evidence collection and let the White House stonewalling strategy go unanswered,” he said in an email.

It’s notable that the special counsel and the Senate Intelligence Committee, the other two major investigations on Russia meddling, haven’t come to any conclusion.

- Democratic claim No. 3: The committee’s investigation has been partisan from the start

The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, had to step down from the Russia investigation over allegations of impropriety that he briefed Trump on wiretapping claims over his own committee.

Then there is the GOP memo alleging FBI bias in its wiretapping of former Trump campaign aide, which Democrats said was baseless, the FBI said was inaccurate, and Trump’s own Justice Department said would be “extraordinarily reckless.”

Republicans say they haven’t been partisan, just going where the facts lead.

What the experts say: The GOP memo in particular is troubling for an independent investigation. To believe there was some kind of FBI bias, you have to call the whole agency - and mostly Republican-appointed federal judges who approved surveillance warrants - into question, said former FBI agent Asha Rappanga when the memo was released in February.


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