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Senate report outlines ‘grave’ Russian threat in 2016 election interference probe

The report details ties between the Trump campaign and Russia but doesn’t find evidence of coordinated scheme

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks to members of the press in the Senate Subway on July 22, 2020.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks to members of the press in the Senate Subway on July 22, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday released the final report on its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, finding numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow posed a “grave” counterintelligence threat.

“We found irrefutable evidence of Russian meddling,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement, directly refuting President Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that Russian interference was a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats.

The committee, however, did not find any evidence of a coordinated scheme between the Trump campaign and Moscow, Rubio said.

The nearly 1,000-page report outlines the “breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives that is a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement.

The bipartisan congressional report closes the panel’s three-year probe into the Kremlin-led operation to influence and interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The fifth and final report involved interviewing 200 witnesses and examining more than 1 million documents, the committee said.

Previous volumes examined Russian attempts to break into U.S. election infrastructure, the Kremlin’s use of social media to divide American public opinion, the Obama administration’s failures to counter Moscow’s push, and a review of the U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment.

The extensive final report nevertheless hides important new findings that have been “needlessly classified,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a separate section of the report.

“That is unfortunate, not only because the counterintelligence concerns that surround Donald Trump constitute an ongoing threat to national security, but because this report includes redacted information that is directly relevant to Russia’s interference in the 2020 election,” Wyden said.

In a recent warning, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said Russia is actively interfering in the 2020 election, and “some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.” China and Iran are also attempting to shape the election, he added.

Top Democratic lawmakers, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have asked Evanina to release more information.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report found that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s presence “created opportunities for Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign.”

Manafort worked for Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and other Kremlin-affiliated Russians to mount influence campaigns in Ukraine, and in the process also hired and worked with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian intelligence officer, the report said.

“The Committee obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the GRU’s hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election,” the report said, referring to the Russian military intelligence service by its initials.

U.S. intelligence agencies have said hackers working for GRU were directly involved in breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s servers as well as breaching the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

Manafort shared Trump campaign’s internal polling data with Kilimnik prior to the 2016 election. And in the months after November 2016, Manafort continued to work with Kilimnik and other Russians “to undermine evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election,” the report said.

“Manafort’s high level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services, particularly Kilimnik and associates of Oleg Deripaska, represented a grave counterintelligence threat,” the report said.

The hack and breaching of the DNC and Podesta email account were ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the committee report said.

The stolen information was then exposed on WikiLeaks, and Trump campaign senior officials worked with Trump confidant Roger Stone to “obtain advance information about WikiLeaks’s planned releases,” the report said. Stone was later found guilty of lying to Congress, but Trump commuted his prison sentence.

The report said the committee uncovered previously unknown links between the Kremlin and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who arranged a meeting with Trump associates at Trump Tower in June 2016. After initially saying that the meeting was about Americans adopting Russian kids, Trump and his associates admitted the Russians offered to help the Trump campaign. 

Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, who was present at the meeting “have significant connections to the Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services,” the report said.  “The connections the Committee uncovered, particularly regarding Veselnitskaya, were far more extensive and concerning than what had been publicly known, and neither Veselnitskaya nor Akhmetshin were forthcoming with the Committee regarding those connections.”

The report also faulted the FBI for botching its investigation into the Russian influence and hacking operations, as well as the DNC for its response.

“The FBI could have, and should have, escalated its communications to the DNC much sooner than it did, but also that the DNC interlocutors did not assign appropriate weight to the FBI’s warnings,” the report said. “Communication on both sides was inadequate, further confusing an already complex situation.”

The agency also placed “unjustified credence” on a dossier by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, and used that information to obtain a surveillance warrant on a Trump campaign aide, the committee said. The agency did not budge from its position even as contrary information emerged later, the report found.

“During both of these matters, the FBI did not quickly identify the problem and adjust course when it became clear its actions were ineffective,” the report said.

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