House Intel transcripts provide new insight, fuel old divisions
Thousands of pages of witness transcripts released Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee provided immediate, if timeworn, fodder for unhealed partisan divisions stemming from the panel’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
They did little to dislodge headlines related to the rising health and economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, though President Trump seized on the transcripts’ release in a morning phone interview with Fox News. He resurfaced criticisms of former Obama administration officials and allies-turned-nemeses like Jeff Sessions, who served as the Trump administration’s first attorney general. Mr. Trump also foreshadowed more developments that he suggested would involve presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“There’s more to come from what I understand, and they’re going to be far greater than what you’ve seen so far,” Mr. Trump said.
The committee transcripts mostly retread territory made familiar by the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller, whose two-year investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference and potential links between Moscow and the Trump campaign became regarded as the seminal probe of the matter, even as two congressional committees conducted parallel inquiries.
The transcripts, 57 in total, include testimony from a spectrum of witnesses, including former Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, Obama administration officials Susan Rice, Susan Power and James Clapper, Trump campaign officials Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner, and ancillary figures like Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix and Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos.
They include candid details from former Trump administration officials like Mr. Sessions and former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats. And they reveal the increasing levels of acrimony among the panel’s Republicans and Democrats – while earlier transcripts reflect occasional camaraderie and include open-ended questioning, by December 2017 battle lines were hardened and sniping and gamesmanship were more frequent.
By early 2018, some interviews – like those with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and the committee’s final interview with Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski – broke down into profanity-laced confrontations over executive privilege and contempt proceedings.
Below are excerpts of particularly candid or lesser-known exchanges, culled from over 6,000 pages by a CBS News team.
TRUMP AND RUSSIA
Several former Trump campaign aides were asked about their conversations with the president about Russia-related topics. Most acknowledged Mr. Trump’s preoccupation with the press linking his campaign to Moscow, though some made light of it.
“I believe, because Russia was part of — and I am speculating — but I believe because Russia was part of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s attack on then-candidate Trump, that he just planted his feet and said, ‘No, no,’ said Michael Caputo, a former campaign official who has recently joined the administration as a spokesman the Department of Health and Human Services. “I believe that if Hillary Clinton had said the sky is blue, he would have said no.”
“I don’t think that was advisable,” Caputo continued. “I think now we know that it was — it made all of this worse. But when the then-candidate, when the president of the United States takes a position in that office, you follow or you leave,” he said.
Sam Clovis, the former national co-chair for the Trump campaign, said, “I think he was having a lot of fun with the Putin thing.”
“Did he ever express definitive or indefinitive favorable positions about Russia in your presence?” asked Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell in an interview in December of 2017.
“No, I think just to pimp the media on Putin,” Clovis responded.
Coats, the former DNI, was among the earliest witnesses to appear before the committee, in June of 2017. He said the president’s focus on press coverage proved at times to be a distraction.
“[H]e was being targeted by the media, and there was some venting, which at times made me a little bit frustrated,” Coats said. “I thought it was taking away from getting him the intelligence that he needed relative to making decisions and so forth.”
Asked if the president ever asked him to speak out publicly in his defense, Coats said he told the president he didn’t think it would be “appropriate” for him to do so.
“‘Mr. President, in my job, that is nothing I think — I don’t think it is appropriate for me to do that,'” Coats said he told Mr. Trump, who had called the DNI at home the night of the semifinals of the Final Four.
“I guess he was thinking: ‘Look, you are the Director of DNl.’ He was probably in his mind thinking: ‘Hey, you are — if anybody knows what is going on in intelligence, from an intelligence standpoint, you must be, you say it,'” Coats said. “I did not think it was appropriate to do that.”
“To tell you the truth,” he continued, “I was sitting there thinking: Here is the President of the United States sitting in an empty White House. His wife is in New York. His family is in New York. On a Saturday night, that has got to be a lonely thing to do.”
THE QUESTION OF COLLUSION
Coats also told congressional investigators that then-FBI Director James Comey told him there was “smoke but no fire” on the question of whether evidence of a conspiracy – which often was referred to as ‘collusion,’ a looser, non-legal term – existed.
“There is smoke but no fire on the issue of collusion … He didn’t use the word ‘collusion,'” Coats said. “He said: ‘Right now, I am only targeting — we are only looking at one person who had some role in the campaign. He said that person is Carter Page, but he said there is — there is no evidence to indicate at this point that the President had collusion with the Russians,” he said.
Coats himself denied having any knowledge of “evidence of collusion, coordination or conspiracy” between Russia and Donald Trump or members of his campaign – a blanket question commonly asked of witnesses by Republicans on the committee.
“I never saw any direct empirical evidence that the Trump campaign or someone in it was plotting, conspiring with the Russians to meddle with the election,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified. “That’s not to say there weren’t concerns about the evidence we were seeing, anecdotal evidence.”
“I saw indications of potential coordination,” said Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to President Obama, “but I did not see, you know, the specific evidence of the actions of the Trump campaign.”
“I think that’s why these investigations have to get to the bottom of it,” he said.
THE STEELE DOSSIER
A number of witnesses were asked about the contents of the so-called Steele dossier, a document of raw, unverified intelligence compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who had previously worked with the FBI. It contained a number of salacious details about the president, and caused shock waves after it was leaked to the media in 2017.
After reading one of the most controversial allegations in the dossier, Representative Trey Gowdy asked Keith Schiller, who worked for years as Mr. Trump’s bodyguard and had accompanied him on a trip to Russia, where the alleged actions were to have taken place, if he had “anything to corroborate that salacious allegation in the dossier.”
“No sir, I don’t,” Mr. Schiller responded.
He later testified that, while traveling in Russia, “someone” suggested sending women to Mr. Trump’s hotel room.
“I believe he was joking, because I immediately told him, ‘Absolutely not. We don’t do that. But I don’t know who it was.” Schiller said when he later told Mr. Trump about the suggestion, “He laughed.”
“We both laughed,” Schiller testified. “I told him it was immediately something that we would never do, and I just told him I shut it down immediately.”
Coats also described one conversation he had with the president about the dossier’s salacious contents.
“I don’t know why he said this to me. Maybe because it is my background, my faith background, or whatever, I don’t know,” Coats said. “He said: ‘I want to — I swear to you on the soul of my son, I had nothing to do with that prostitution. And for them to take me aside and raise that issue and then have it leaked, he said, how would you like it if — how do you go home and talk to your wife when it is plastered all over the place that you were using prostitutes in Russia, and you are having your family hear that and having your son hear that?'”
“H was just really, really impacted,” Coats said.
In an exchange that is lightly redacted, Mr. Clapper was asked whether the intelligence community attempted to validate any of the sources, subsources or contents of the dossier, which was included in an annex to the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment of Russia’s 2016 interference.
“Yeah,” Clapper said of including the document as an annex, “And the reason we handled it that way was precisely because we could not corroborate [REDACTED].”
After another partially redacted exchange, he continued, “The Intelligence Community at large didn’t take that on. That would be a responsibility of, if anyone, would be the FBI.”
MICHAEL FLYNN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER
Clapper also described some of his own interactions with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who briefly served as president Trump’s national security adviser before resigning after information emerged that he had lied to the FBI and Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The Department of Justice dropped its charges against Flynn on the same day the committee’s transcripts were released.
“I do think the Russians, even during the time he served as director of [the Defense Intelligence Agency], were wooing him,” Clapper testified. “I was wooed by the Russians when I was director of DIA in the early nineties.”
“[H]e was very big on engaging with the GRU,” an arm of Russia’s military intelligence, Clapper said. “He visited there and had the GRU chief visit him. I did the same thing,” he said. “And I tried to impart some fatherly advice to Mike Flynn when he was engaging with them, because I said, you know, my own experience when I was the director of DIA.”
Jared Kushner, who worked on the Trump campaign and transition team before becoming a senior White House adviser, described his conversations with Kislyak and Flynn during a December 1, 2016 meeting. Kushner said Kislyak wanted to discuss the U.S. position on Syria.
“We did not have a fully formed view on what we wanted to do in Syria,” Kushner said. “So, in order to collect different opinions, so that we can try to come up with a strategy to present to the President at some point in time, they offered to have their generals give their perspective to General Flynn. That’s when he said: ‘Look, I would like you to hear their side of what they think’ … They asked if we had a secure way to do that, to which General Flynn said no.”
After agreeing the generals were unlikely to come in person to the U.S., Kushner said, “I’m a business guy. I said: “Look, if you want to give us information, if you have a way to get information, then let us just use the way you get the information.'”
“And [Kislyak] says: ‘Well, we shouldn’t do that in our Embassy.’
And we said: ‘No problem.'”
Susan Rice, Flynn’s functional predecessor in the Obama administration, testified that when she read the press reports about the communications between Kushner, Flynn and Kislyak, “I was horrified.”
“It’s inconceivable to me that someone associated with an incoming administration would seek to have a private channel with an adversarial government designed to be hidden from the government that he or she was going to represent in a few weeks’ time,” she said.
“That approach, if it’s true, would suggest to me that one places more confidence in our principal adversary’s interests and communications than they do in our own,” she said. “And it is deeply troubling to me that anybody responsible in any way, shape, or form for U.S. policy would privilege the Russians over the United States Government.”
Contributors: Bryce Klehm, John Nolen,Corey Rangel,Brandi Kellam, Julia Boccagno, Grace Segers, Katie Watson, Paulina Smolinski, Mary Walsh, Maggie Dore, Amber Ali, Nicole Sganga, Julia Kimani Burnham, Allyson Ross Taylor, Tim Perry, Carrie Rabin, Zak Hudak, Arianna Freeman, Amber Ali, Maggie Dore, Leslie Frazier, Nancy Cordes
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