Is Tone of Trump-Russia Probe Changing?
Have you noticed? In recent public comments, the lawmakers investigating the Trump-Russia affair, along with some of the commentators who dissect its every development, seem to be focusing more on the facts of Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 election and less on allegations that Donald Trump or his associates colluded with those efforts.
Some of that could be just an impression. But the fact is, the subjects that have dominated discussion of the Trump-Russia matter lately — Facebook and other social media ads and the most recent update from Senate Intelligence Committee leaders Richard Burr and Mark Warner — do not necessarily point toward collusion. Rather, more often than not, the latest talk points toward Russian “active measures,” that is, the effort to disrupt the 2016 campaign.
Why the change?
“Because that’s where the evidence is going,” one lawmaker who follows the matter closely told me in a text exchange. “I mean, things could always change, but that observation is just the reality of the situation right now, as I see it.”
“Because they’ve been spinning their wheels on something for which evidence has yet to emerge,” said another lawmaker.
“I think it’s 1) the Mueller probe means that stuff (allegations of collusion) is sort of in his wheelhouse now,” said yet another lawmaker, “and 2) I think there’s recognition that Trump himself is unlikely to be implicated in this.”
In a recent speech to the San Mateo County, California, Republican Party, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes said that at this moment investigators have more evidence of Democrats colluding with Russians than of President Trump doing so.
The Russian effort to interfere in the election was always supposed to be the heart of the investigation. And if the Russian plot were in fact the only subject of the probe, there would probably be a lot of bipartisan agreement and cooperation. But the investigation early on included allegations of collusion and has been politically radioactive since.
In recent days, one of the president’s chief accusers, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has found himself pushing back against suggestions there’s not much evidence of collusion.
“If it was so obvious, it if were so egregious, you should have known by now,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo, paraphrasing the investigation’s critics, told Schiff earlier this month.
“Well, no one’s saying this was obvious,” Schiff answered. “Obviously, there was a deep interest in the Russians in keeping their work hidden. But you can’t say there’s no evidence of collusion.”
“We’ve seen even in the public realm, I think, very graphic evidence that the Trump campaign was willing to collude with the Russians,” Schiff continued. That was most likely a reference to the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting which Kremlin-connected Russians enticed Donald Trump, Jr. into attending by promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. In fact, the Russians wanted to push their goal of killing the Magnitsky Act, and the meeting, by all accounts, ended quickly. But Schiff argues that it suggests the willingness to collude, if not collusion itself.
“So you can’t say even in the public realm, let alone what we’re looking at [in secret], that there’s no evidence,” Schiff concluded. “Now, is there proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Are we ready to announce a conclusion? We’re not there yet.”
For his part, Senate Intel chief Burr recently noted that one part of the committee’s probe was “to look into any collusion by either campaign during the 2016 elections.”
The “by either campaign” was a point not heard much in public discussion of the investigation. (After all, some investigators looking into the Trump dossier characterize it as Democrats paying Kremlin-linked Russians for compromising information on Donald Trump.) In any event, under questioning by reporters, Burr said the probe into collusion is still open and the committee “continues to look into all evidence to see if there was any hint of collusion.” But he gave no indication one way or the other about what had been found.
None of this is definitive. And that’s without noting that the Mueller investigation appears to be going full steam, although in precisely what direction is not publicly known.
But the tone of the public discussion seems to be changing — away from collusion and toward Russia. Yet another lawmaker agreed that appears to be the case, and in a text message suggested there’s a simple reason: “Maybe reflects where they think it’s heading.”
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