When Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took over as acting chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the spring of 2020, he refocused the committee's long-running investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Rubio turned the committee away from dispassionately investigating the myriad connections between the Kremlin and Donald Trump's campaign into a Republican defense line between the compromised former president and the American public. Instead, Rubio aligned the committee with the Trump Administration itself, politicizing intelligence, downplaying Russian interference, white-washing Trump-Kremlin contacts and purposely deflecting attention from Russia to China.
Soon, Rubio publicly sparred with the committee vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), over how much to reveal to the people before the 2020 election. They issued a heavily redacted fifth and final 950-page volume of the committee's work on Aug. 18, just 77 days before Election Day.
The report was presented as a confusing they-said-they-said hodge-podge of observations and conclusions pitting Republicans and Democrats against each other.
But unlike the four previous reports issued with bipartisan agreement, the last volume was presented as a confusing they-said-they-said hodge-podge of observations and conclusions pitting Republicans and Democrats against each other.
Upon the release of the report, Rubio and Warner even issued conflicting statements, as if characterizing two different investigations. Rubio and the Republicans on the committee asserted that they "found absolutely no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 election."
This is the second of a two-part series. In Part 1, we examined how officials high in the Trump intelligence community hid evidence of Russian interference in U.S. elections.
Warner, in marked contrast, said the investigators found "a breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives that is a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections."
Democrats, who claimed the Republicans redacted portions even more damaging to Trump, said: "Trump and his associates' participation in and enabling of this Russian activity, represents one of the single most grave counterintelligence threats to American national security in the modern era."
So who was right?
Actually, the facts are quite clear. Donald Trump and his campaign worked hand-in-glove with Kremlin interests. Just as former Attorney General William Barr lied about the findings of the Mueller Report and Trump's first impeachment defense team mischaracterized his infamous phone call to Ukraine's prime minister, Rubio and his fellow committee Republicans lied and denied the extent of the Trump-Kremlin connections—to the detriment of our democracy, but a great boon to the dictatorial regime of Vladimir Putin. Indeed, just last week, the U.S. intelligence community outlined Putin's efforts to influence the 2020 election—again in favor of Donald Trump.
Lost in the News
Released amid the Covid pandemic and the presidential election, the damning revelations of the Senate committee's report didn't register with many people. News accounts at the time didn't always give the full flavor of the report, relying on characterizations rather than the telling details establishing how thoroughly the Kremlin's agents and the Trump campaign coordinated.
But a simple reading of the massive report shows documented connection after connection, coordination and, yes, collusion between the Trump inner circle and Putin's associates.
- Trump's convicted and now-pardoned campaign manager Paul Manafort coordinated directly with Konstantin Kilimnik. The report states without equivocation that "Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer." At Manafort's direction, the campaign sent sensitive campaign strategy and polling data to Kilimnik every day. Manafort and Kilimnik hid their interactions through encryption apps, dedicated "bat phones" and clandestine meetings. Campaign and polling data was sent daily to Kilimnik and then deleted, using the Facebook-owned encrypted platform WhatsApp. (The FBI is seeking Kilimnik and is offering a large $250,000 reward for information that leads to his arrest.)
- Trump advisers Kellyanne Conway, pre-emptively pardoned Steve Bannon and convicted and pardoned Gen. Michael Flynn knowingly negotiated with Russian hackers to obtain Hillary Clinton's stolen emails. They conducted a multi-pronged approach to get the hacked information. Flynn was in close contact with Barbara Ledeen, a Senate staffer working for the Senate Judiciary Committee who was tasked with obtaining Hillary Clinton's emails.
- WikiLeaks and Trump's campaign together weaponized the Democratic National Committee documents that Russia hacked as part of the Kremlin's strategy to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign. At the direction of "Trump and senior campaign," Roger Stone "took action to gain inside knowledge" from Wikileaks and "shared" this information with Trump. Trump and senior campaign officials coordinated the timing of the release of the documents with WikiLeaks through Stone, who was convicted of obstructing a Congressional investigation. Trump commuted his sentence.
- Wikileaks was in contact with Donald Trump Jr. directly, even providing him with a username and password to a then-private website, putintrump.org, used by journalists investigating Trump-Kremlin links. Don Jr. also coordinated the June 9,
- Trump Tower meeting between himself, Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with heavy ties to the Kremlin, and her entourage. Participants claimed they discussed adoption, but the report reveals that the subject line of Trump Jr's email invite was "FW: Russia—Clinton—private and confidential." Meeting notes from Manafort's phone included cryptic financial references to offshore accounts such as "Offshore - Cyprus/ 133m shares."
- Trump regularly received 'gifts' from his Russian friends including a watch, artwork, and a gift from Putin to Trump—a decorative box and personal letter from Putin. The Putin gift, which the report even includes pictures of, was hand-delivered to Trump's Manhattan apartment after his infamous 2013 Moscow visit for Trump's Miss Universe pageant. The report indicates that in addition to gifts, messages were being transmitted. Days after the 2016 election, admitted Russian spy Maria Butina received a message that "Trump has already received a good letter from VVP [Putin]."
- Kushner spoke to the Russian Ambassador, during the transition, about setting up a secret backchannel to communicate without detection directly with Putin's staff, a fact that had been known. There were various groups working to establish this backchannel for Putin. Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian oligarch who is head of the $10 billion Russian sovereign wealth fund RDIF, texted George Nader who was close to the Trump campaign that Putin had "emphasized that this is a great priority for us and that we need to build this communication channel to avoid bureaucracy." Nader was working with the campaign at that time and helping Dmitriev establish that channel.
- Carter Page admitted to the FBI that he was "on the books" as a Russian intelligence source. Maria Butina, a Russian spy, sent a Twitter direct message to her Russian contacts asking about Page and saying that Page and Putin were together at a meeting in Moscow in 2015. Despite these obvious and significant security concerns, Trump put Page on his campaign's foreign policy team, and Page even obtained permission from the campaign to travel to Russia in June 2016. The campaign only distanced itself from Page after a news report that U.S. intelligence was investigating whether Page had private communications with senior Russian officials
The list of contacts and links goes on, but the overwhelming evidence of collusion was simply ignored by Rubio and his fellow Republican committee members. They wouldn't let the facts get in the way of their party leader's story: No collusion.
While that was the Trump and the GOP line, until then it had not been the committee's narrative. That changed, however, when Rubio took over the committee chairmanship under most unusual and extraordinary circumstances.
Before Rubio, the committee ran a bi-partisan three-year investigation under its chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Warner. In the nine months from July 2019 to April 2020, Burr and Warner jointly released four 100-page reports documenting the "irrefutable evidence of Russian meddling" in our elections. The reports were considered highly informative with no hint of partisanship. USA Today said the committee was "a rare symbol of unity on the divisive issue of Russia's role in the presidential race—quite a feat for a panel with members ranging from conservative Trump ally Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to liberal Trump critic Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)"
Indeed, the Intelligence Committee, by design, is supposed to minimize partisanship. Established in 1976 in the post-Watergate era, the committee has a long history of serious, responsible oversight of the intelligence community and intelligence issues.
But that all fell apart when FBI agents raided Chairman Burr's North Carolina home in May 2020, seeking evidence of insider stock trading based on information Burr had learned at closed-door briefings about the Covid pandemic. Burr stepped down from his chairmanship. Then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tapped Rubio for the job, and the fix was in.
Sidelined, Burr was told on Jan. 19, Trump's last day in office, that the trading case would be dropped. Probably not insignificantly, Burr was one of seven Republican senators voting to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Two other Intelligence Committee Republicans—Susan Collins of Maine and Ben Sasse of Nebraska—also voted to convict.
Today, Burr remains a member of the committee, but Rubio sits in the vice chairman's seat. Warner is chairman.
The Virginia Democrat has said he isn't interested in looking backward but wants to look forward at rebuilding the U.S. intelligence community, especially the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—which he said, emerged "decimated" and "in shambles" from the last four years. And Warner may well have summed up the challenge he will face in leading his committee going forward saying, "We don't want to go back to that non-fact-based world."