Five major revelations from Congress's Russia probes

Five major revelations from Congress's Russia probes
© Greg Nash

A new wrinkle emerged in the congressional investigations into Russian election interference this week as Facebook found evidence that it had sold political ads to fake Russian accounts in the lead up to the 2016 vote. 

It’s the latest big development in the months-long congressional probes into Moscow’s efforts, with investigators already looking into contacts between Trump associates and Russia, the extent to which Moscow targeted state election systems and the circumstances surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey. 

The Senate and House Intelligence Committees, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee, are all pursuing parallel probes. Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller is spearheading the federal investigation, which includes examining possible collusion between Trump associates and Moscow.

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In some cases, media reports have produced major bombshells shaping the way Congress’s investigations have progressed. One such case was the New York Times report on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the heat of the campaign, which led to his five-hour interview on Thursday with Senate Judiciary staffers.

Here are five things that have been revealed by the congressional investigations so far.

The existence of the FBI’s investigation

Nearly six months ago, it was a House Intelligence Committee hearing that brought to light the federal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Comey, then still the FBI director, disclosed in dramatic testimony that the bureau was investigating Russian interference in the presidential election, including any “links” or “coordination” between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government.

“As you know, our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations, especially those investigations that involve classified matters, but in unusual circumstances where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to do so as Justice Department policies recognize,” Comey said. “This is one of those circumstances.”

It represented the second time in less than a year that Comey inserted himself into the political fray, following his decision in 2016 not to prosecute Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain MORE after the FBI’s investigation into her use of a personal email server while serving as secretary of State.

Comey’s disclosure of the probe was criticized Republicans and fueled Democratic attacks as they sought to tie Trump to Russia.

Less than two months later, Comey was fired.

The possible contacts between Trump associates, Russia before election 

A second pivotal moment for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation came at the end of May, when lawmakers had the opportunity to question John Brennan, CIA director under the Obama administration.

Brennan testified that he had seen intelligence showing contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign associates that raised questions about whether Moscow had compromised the individuals — a matter that he said concerned him. 

“It raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals,” Brennan said, adding, “I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether or not U.S. persons were actively conspiring, colluding with Russian officials.”

Brennan’s disclosure was key in that it seemed to confirm that there had been communication between Trump associates and Russia before the election. Following the election, Trump aides said that there had been no contacts between the campaign and foreign entities.

The details of Comey’s interactions with Trump 

The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation made waves on June 8, when Comey appeared before lawmakers to deliver his account of his interactions with President Trump leading up to his firing in early May. 

Comey testified that Trump had directed him end the investigation into Michael Flynn, the president’s embattled national security adviser who was forced to step down in February after revelations about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He told lawmakers he believes he was fired for refusing to do so.

“I think it unquestionably increased the determination of the congressional committees and Mueller in exercising complete independence and get to the bottom of what they are investigating,” Bill Jeffress, an experienced Washington criminal lawyer, said of Comey’s testimony. 

Comey’s firing represented a pivotal moment in the saga surrounding Russia interference, leading to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.

It has also opened a line of inquiry into whether Trump, who has indicated that the Russian investigation factored into his decisionmaking, obstructed justice by firing Comey. Mueller is now said to be investigating potential obstruction. 

Comey also disclosed in his testimony that he told Trump personally that he was not under investigation on multiple occasions — something that Trump himself had claimed but was only confirmed by Comey when he appeared before lawmakers in June. 

The disclosure led Trump to claim “total and complete vindication,” and refuted press accounts stating that Comey’s testimony would suggest otherwise. 

The evidence that Russia targeted 21 state election-related systems

Much of the conversation on Russian interference has focused on potential links between Trump associates and Moscow.

But attention has increasingly turned toward Moscow’s efforts to target state-level election systems, an issue that was only cryptically referenced in an intelligence community assessment released publicly in January.

At a public hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June, officials at the Department of Homeland Security testified that there is evidence that Russia targeted election-related systems in 21 states. 

While the systems targeted were not involved in vote tallying — Arizona and Illinois have both reported breaches of voter registration databases — the revelations have nevertheless stirred fears about the potential for Russia to target state-level infrastructure in the future in a way that would affect vote counts. 

It is not publicly known the extent to which Russia succeeded in its targeting efforts. 

The ads that Facebook sold to fake accounts operating in Russia

After an internal review, Facebook on Wednesday disclosed to Senate Intelligence Committee investigators that it unwittingly sold about $100,000 in political advertisements to fake accounts believed to be operating out of Russia. 

The detail has opened up new speculation about the extent to which social media companies were unknowingly part of Russia’s efforts. 

The roughly 3,000 ads were purchased between June 2015 and May 2017, the company later confirmed in a blog post, and mostly focused on “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum” rather than specifically referencing the presidential election.

“This seems to fit with the broader narrative of interests of certain actors [in Russia] or the Russian government as a whole in playing a role in U.S. politics,” said Chris Miller, research director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program. “This kind of fits a broader pattern.”

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain Facebook under fire over Russian ads in election MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the committee, has requested similar information about ads from Twitter, anticipating that Facebook’s disclosure could be just “the tip of the iceberg.” The Democrat has also suggested that Congress could pass legislation that would institute disclosure requirements for social media advertisements.   

“I think the public needs to know what kind of misinformation and disinformation might be appearing on their Facebook news feed or their Twitter news feed,” Warner told CNN on Wednesday.

Warner confirmed that Facebook said that it traced the activity to an internet “troll farm” operating out of St. Petersburg.

Facebook, which has since deactivated the 470 accounts in question, has already reportedly shared the findings of its internal investigation with Mueller.