Where Shakespeare is credited in writing “Much To Do About Nothing,” the Senate may have achieved credit for writing “nothing about much.” It is remarkable about how comparably little can be said in 1000 pages. The Senate Intelligence Committee released report yesterday on its own Russian investigation. I have been plowing through the report but what was most striking thus far is how little really new material the Senate was able to uncover. Indeed, it notes that it did not even look into the basis for the claims of the Steele dossier, which was used and widely cited for the early allegations of collusion. One of the few notable points is that the Report states that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort worked closely with a known Russian intelligence officer and that he “represented a grave counterintelligence threat” due to that relationship with Konstantin Kilimnik. Yet, the Report is largely descriptive of known allegations with few concrete conclusions or original disclosures. It confirms and adds details on Russian interference with the election, but it does not materially add new information on key areas where some of us hoped the Committee could gain greater access.
Even on the Manafort issue, the Senate never appears to have secured access to encrypted communications between the two men despite the fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller presumably did have such access before declaring that he found no evidence of knowing collusion between campaign officials and the Russian operation to influence the election. The Senate does not contest that finding and further states that the Steele dossier, which was funded by the Clinton campaign, was a highly dubious product that did not meet the most basic standards for intelligence collection and analysis.
For some of us, the allegation against Manafort is hardly surprising but we were hoping for new evidence on his conduct. I have been a long critic of Manafort and criticized his selection by the campaign. I both supported his federal prosecution and opposed any presidential pardon or clemency. I also viewed his sentence as far too light. As I previously wrote, Manafort has been long known to be a reckless and corrupting influence in Washington. It does not surprise me at all if Russian intelligence saw him as an easy mark or worse. The role of Kilimnik as a possible Russian asset has been discussed for years, though the House Intelligence Committee seemed to largely ignore his role.
What was interesting to me was the statement that, because the pair used encrypted communications, the Committee could not really determine if there was criminal or collusive conduct. Mueller presumably did get past these encryption walls since Manafort cooperated and did not find any other crime to charge or evidence of knowing collusion. Manafort and Kilimnik were engaged in a variety of business ventures. Yet, the Senate never appeared to get access to this information. That is troubling to me as someone who has long advocated a robust legislative role in oversight.
The report also indicates other areas left largely untouched like the actual validity of the allegations in the Steele dossier that was widely cited in the media and used by the FBI in justifying secret surveillance. Again, the Senate just left those questions unaddressed and unresolved while shredding Steele for his lack of professionalism and questionable practices. It also reaffirmed the concern of American intelligence that the dossier was used by Russian intelligence to spread false information, saying that Steele gave Russian intelligence “several opportunities . . . to insert disinformation.” It dismissed his tradecraft as “generally poor” and relied on unreliable sources and information. Yet, that was also previously known and there was little “value added” after a massive investigation that decided not to look at the specific Steele allegations.
Again and again, I was struck by the gaps in the report which spent over a 1000 pages but contributed little new to the discussion. For example, the Senate indicates that it believes that Trump lied in denying any recollection of speaking to Roger Stone about Wikileaks. That denial also struck me as dubious. Yet, the Senate simply noted that it is clear to the Committee that such a conversation occurred. I was hoping to see new possible interviews of third parties that might support or disprove Trump’s denial. Instead, the report leaves the long-standing allegation as unresolved.
Likewise, the Report notes (as previously alleged) that two participants in the June 9, 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russians at the Trump Tower had “significant connections to the Russian government, including Russian intelligence services… far more extensive than what had been publicly known.” Specifically, it was referring to Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin as having “significant connections to the Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services.” Yet, again, this was previously alleged and, while noting greater connections to the Russian intelligence, the Report offers little in terms of the purpose of the meeting or whether it was part of an actual Russian intelligence operation. It simply says that the two “may” have hidden their true motives in working in the United States. Again, Mueller found no evidence of knowing collusion with the Russians, but I was hoping that the Senate could drill down further on the allegations rather than noting that it found this particularly disturbing.
The report also repeated what is largely known about Carter Page, Ukrainian theories, and other dimensions to the Russian investigation. As someone who has closely followed this controversy, the report is a disappointment in terms of adding new information. It fulfilled the stereotype of bipartisan commission in Washington that spend hundreds of pages largely restating what is known without reaching meaningful conclusions. The Manafort allegation is the most glaring. It is hard to understand why a Senate Committee could not review such material from an individual who was a cooperating witness on a now closed Special Counsel investigation.
I was critical of the 9-11 Report for its lack of accountability, but the report did produce new and probative information. This report is remarkably pedestrian in its marshaling of evidence and facts. It even fails to adequately address the obvious limits of its own investigation as a matter of concern for oversight investigations.
This is why Marx got it right all along — Groucho, not Karl: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”