john avlon russia report
Avlon: The Trump campaign's Russia connections were real
03:08 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The Senate Intelligence Committee released Tuesday the most comprehensive and meticulous examination to date explaining how Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and the Trump campaign welcomed the foreign adversary’s help, revealing new information about contacts between Russian officials and associates of President Donald Trump during and after the campaign.

In several key ways, the committee’s counterintelligence investigation goes beyond the findings of former special counsel Robert Mueller released last year, as the Republican-led Senate panel was not limited by questions of criminality that drove the special counsel probe.

Among the key findings:

  • That then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort was working with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian intelligence officer, and sought to share internal campaign information with Kilimnik. The committee says it obtained “some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected” to Russia’s 2016 hacking operation and concludes Manafort’s role on the campaign “represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”
  • That Trump and senior campaign officials sought to obtain advance information on WikiLeaks’ email dumps through Roger Stone, and that Trump spoke to Stone about WikiLeaks, despite telling the special counsel in written answers he had “no recollections” that they had spoken about it.
  • That information offered at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting “was part of a broader influence operation” from the Russian government, though there’s no evidence Trump campaign members knew of it. Two of the Russians who met with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Manafort had “significant connections” to the Russian government, including Russian intelligence, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya’s ties were “far more extensive and concerning than what had been publicly known.”
  • That Russian-government actors continued until at least January 2020 to spread disinformation about Russia’s election interference, and that Manafort and Kilimnik both sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, and not Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
  • That Russia took advantage of the Trump transition team’s inexperience and opposition to Obama administration policies “to pursue unofficial channels,” and it’s likely that Russian intelligence services and others acting on the Kremlin’s behalf exploited the Transition’s shortcomings for Russia’s advantage.
  • That the FBI may have been victim to Russian disinformation coming through intelligence sources such as the Trump dossier author Christopher Steele.
  • And that campaigns, political leaders and other influential Americans must be even more diligent in the future not to fall victim to Russian interference, given the extent of Russia’s efforts and successes to reach campaign operatives in 2016.

The report is all the more remarkable because it was led by then-Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. The report provides an exhaustive, bipartisan confirmation of the contacts between Russians and Trump associates in 2016 – and it was the only congressional committee that managed to avoid the partisan infighting that plagued the other congressional investigations into Russian election meddling.

It comes at a time when the intelligence community has warned that Russia is once again seeking to interfere in the US presidential and Trump has continued to try to undermine Russia investigation findings and prosecutions during his reelection campaign.

The nearly 1,000-page report caps off a three-year investigation into 2016 election interference that included more than 200 interviews, including with top Trump family members and Trump campaign officials such as Donald Trump Jr., Kushner and Steve Bannon.

Unlike Mueller’s report, which focused on questions of criminal conduct, the committee’s report detailing the findings of its counterintelligence is hundreds of pages of facts the panel obtained, drawing conclusions in places where Mueller often stopped short of doing so.

Democrats and GOP draw differing conclusions

Tuesday’s report, which was released with redactions from the Office of the Director of National intelligence, is the fifth volume the committee has released detailing its findings, with previous chapters examining Russia’s social media campaign and affirming that Russia was seeking to help Trump’s campaign.

While the full committee signed off on the facts laid out on the committee’s report, Democrats and Republicans ended up with different interpretations about what they say about the Trump campaign and collusion – a word that is not written into the body of the report itself.

“We can say, without any hesitation, that the Committee found absolutely no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 election,” said acting Senate Intelligence Chairman Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, who took over the panel when Burr stepped aside earlier this year amid an FBI investigation into his stock trades.

The Trump campaign echoed that sentiment in a statement on the report, saying it “proves – yet again – there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.”

But Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement that the report was the “most comprehensive examination of ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign to date – a breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives that is a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections.”

“I encourage all Americans to carefully review the documented evidence of the unprecedented and massive intervention campaign waged on behalf of then-candidate Donald Trump by Russians and their operatives and to reach their own independent conclusions,” Warner said.

The report’s “additional views” section further highlighted the fundamental divide between the parties over what to make of the Trump campaign contacts with Russia. A group of the committee’s Republicans wrote that the investigation shows “with no doubt, there was no collusion.” But many of the committee’s Democrats concluded in their additional views that the evidence gathered “is what collusion looks like.”

Neither Burr nor Warner signed onto the additional views.

Burr’s statement on the report Tuesday focused on the fact that “much of Russia’s activities weren’t related to producing a specific electoral outcome, but attempted to undermine our faith in the democratic process itself.”

“Their aim is to sow chaos, discord, and distrust,” Burr said.

Report details Manafort ties to Russian intelligence

The report reveals extraordinary new details about Manafort – the former Trump campaign chairman who was convicted by Mueller’s team in 2018 on financial fraud and other charges – and Manafort’s extensive connections to Russian intelligence operatives. Mueller’s team struggled to get to the bottom of whether Manafort used these longstanding ties to coordinate with the Russian government and its covert campaign to help Trump win the 2016 election.

Lawmakers went much further than Mueller. They asserted that Kilimnik, one of Manafort’s Russian colleagues, was “a Russian intelligence officer” who “may be connected” to the Russian government’s hack-and-leak operations against Democrats in 2016. The Senate report also said there was also some evidence connecting Manafort to the Russian hacking.

But these conclusions were based on “fragmentary information,” the report said, because of Kilimnik’s intelligence tradecraft, which relied on encrypted messaging and in-person communications. Most of this section is fully redacted, leaving key details a mystery for now.

After Trump’s victory, Russia launched a propaganda campaign to undermine American efforts to investigate the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. Manafort and Kilimnik actively “participated in these influence operations,” the report says, and promoted the false narrative that it was Ukraine that meddled in the 2016 election, and that it did so to help Clinton win.

This counternarrative reached a fever pitch during Trump’s impeachment, which the Senate report hints at by saying the disinformation was observed as recently as January. During impeachment, Trump and Republican lawmakers railed against “Ukrainian meddling,” even though multiple witnesses who testified said it was a false narrative or obvious disinformation.

“The Committee identified no reliable evidence that the Ukrainian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. election,” the report said, giving the most definitive US denial on the topic to date.

Stone likely spoke to Trump about WikiLeaks, committee finds

The report pushes back on one of the major political points Trump has tried to make in recent months: that the Russia investigation unfairly focused on his campaign and prompted the criminal conviction of Stone, his former adviser, as a way to hurt the presidency.

The Senate committee clearly documents how multiple leaders on the Trump campaign and the President himself talked with Stone throughout 2016 about reaching WikiLeaks and using leaks of stolen Democratic emails to Trump’s advantage – as well as showing how Stone then lied to Congress about it, a federal crime for which a jury found him guilty.

“Beginning in April or May 2016, Roger Stone repeatedly conveyed to Trump and senior Campaign staff that WikiLeaks would be releasing information damaging to Clinton,” the committee report said. “In August 2016, following the Campaign’s tasking, Stone obtained information indicating that (Clinton campaign chairman) John Podesta would be a target of an upcoming release, prior to WikiLeaks releasing Podesta’s emails on October 7.”

The report says Trump and Stone spoke about WikiLeaks information prior to its release, according to advisers Rick Gates, Michael Cohen and extensive phone records, especially from June 2016.

“Any of these calls would have provided Stone with an opportunity to share additional information about WikiLeaks directly with Trump, and given the content of his conversations with Manafort and Gates combined with Trump’s known interest in the issue, the Committee assesses he likely did,” the report said.

Trump had said in written answers to Mueller he didn’t recall conversations with Stone about WikiLeaks releases. But the new report could fuel more scrutiny on how the President downplayed his interests in WikiLeaks in 2016.

Democrats in Congress have focused on his response even after the Mueller investigation ended and into this year, suggesting Trump was lying under oath. Mueller, in a less redacted version of his report released in June, raised the possibility Trump lied to him in analyzing and documenting potential obstruction of justice by the President.

The Senate report released Tuesday is inconclusive on whether Stone secretly received details from WikiLeaks about planned released. The committee noted top advisers Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort, Michael Flynn, Corey Lewandowski, Jeff Sessions and Sam Clovis also expressed interest in obtaining the stolen Democratic emails.

The Senate separately points out how WikiLeaks’ ties to Russia and the campaign’s interest in WikiLeaks advanced the foreign influence effort in the 2016 election. In short, Russian military intelligence used Stone to its advantage in 2016. Noting Stone’s messages with the hackers’ online account during the campaign, the committee wrote its findings suggested Russian intelligence “sought to launder and amplify its stolen information through established outlets and individuals, including by cultivating a relationship with Stone, a known close associate of Trump.”

Committee faults FBI for handling of Steele dossier

The committee also probed how the FBI used the opposition research dossier compiled by Steele, an issue that’s been the subject of a scathing inspector general report and that two other Republican-led Senate committees are currently investigating.

Steele’s allegations were improperly used in the FBI’s foreign surveillance warrant applications for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded last year. The committee said that it did not seek to “prove or disprove the assertions” Steele made – and it did not rely on the dossier in its investigation – but it examined how the FBI handled Steele and the dossier.

The committee found that Steele’s reporting, which he had compiled while working as a contractor for Democratic National Committee lawyers and then passed along to the FBI, had “lacked rigor and transparency about the quality of the sourcing.” The committee concluded that the dossier was “given a veneer of credibility by lax procedures, and layered misunderstandings” at the FBI, and that the FBI gave Steele’s allegations “unjustified credence, based on an incomplete understanding of Steele’s past reporting record.”

“Further, FBI did not effectively adjust its approach to Steele’s reporting once one of Steele’s subsources provided information that raised serious concerns about the source descriptions in the Steele Dossier,” the committee wrote.

The issues surrounding the Steele dossier and the FBI’s handling of it are a central component of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Homeland Security investigations into the FBI, which remain ongoing. Both Rubio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, focused on the committee’s findings on Steele in their statements on the report Tuesday.

“We discovered deeply troubling actions taken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Rubio said, “particularly their acceptance and willingness to rely on the ‘Steele Dossier’ without verifying its methodology or sourcing.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

CNN’s Zach Cohen contributed to this report.