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Republicans on defensive over Russia report finding

Republicans are on the defensive about their own announcement concluding the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia's election interference.

Members are openly frustrated at what they say is inaccurate media coverage of an alleged split between Rep. Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayEx-Rep. Mike Conaway, former aide launch lobbying firm Thompson named top Republican on Agriculture Bottom line MORE (R-Texas) and other committee lawmakers over the issue of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preference for then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE during the 2016 election.

The apparent division emerged in the hours after Conaway announced that the panel’s report would dispute the intelligence community's official assessment that Putin had sought to intervene on behalf of Trump. Shortly following that announcement, Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyPompeo rebukes Biden's new foreign policy The Hunter Biden problem won't go away Sunday shows preview: Joe Biden wins the 2020 election MORE (R-S.C.) issued a statement that “it is clear” that Russia was “motivated by a desire to harm” Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHere's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Clinton praises Dolly Parton's cold shoulder top from vaccination: 'Shall we make this a trend?' Trump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC MORE’s candidacy. Rep. Tom RooneyThomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyRepublican rips GOP lawmakers for voting by proxy from CPAC House Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Hill-HarrisX poll: 76 percent oppose Trump pardoning former campaign aides MORE (R-Fla.) echoed similar sentiments on CNN.

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But committee Republicans have pushed back on the notion that there is any disagreement about what investigators found. What happened, lawmakers told The Hill, was a case of mixed messaging and garbled reporting on an intelligence concept that is difficult to explain.

“I screwed this up by that line in the talking points, created this ruckus — it’s a non-ruckus ruckus,” Conaway told The Hill on Thursday.

Although there is evidence that Putin sought to boost Trump’s candidacy, lawmakers say, committee investigators concluded that the small group of intelligence officials who made the assessment in January 2017 did not meet the appropriate evidentiary standard to make that judgment with such certainty. 

The dispute appears to center around what’s known in intelligence as a “confidence level” — a qualitative measurement given by analysts to convey the scope and quality of the information underpinning a particular assessment.

“Is there evidence to show that they might be right? Sure,” Rooney said. “It’s a matter of, do we have Vladimir Putin on tape saying ‘I prefer Donald Trump’ — no, we don’t.”

The House committee hasn’t made an assessment about whether the intelligence community’s underlying claim — that Putin developed a clear preference for Trump — was correct, Conaway said Thursday. What the panel has taken issue with, he said, is “how they came to it and the underlying documents they used.”

Some Republicans have been more forceful in their condemnations of the tradecraft used by the intelligence community, then under former Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperThe biggest example of media malfeasance in 2020 is... Meet Biden's pick to lead the US intelligence community The new marshmallow media in the Biden era MORE.

"I don't know what Vladimir Putin's opinion was,” Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHere are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act Sunday shows - COVID-19 dominates as grim milestone approaches Former Texas GOP rep: Trump should hold very little or no role in Republican Party MORE (R-Texas), a former CIA officer, told Fox News. “The intelligence that was used to make that assessment was substandard and it went through a very atypical process.”

Former Obama administration officials say they agonized over what to make public and when about the FBI’s investigation, for fear of being perceived as trying to tilt the scales in the election.

Although the end of the House Intelligence investigation was celebrated on the right and in conservative media, the controversy over the Putin finding has sucked up much of the attention.

The assessment that the intelligence community erred in its judgment of Putin’s preferences is reflected in the draft report Republicans are currently honing, but it’s not a key element of the document. A second report, centered solely on the intelligence community assessment, is expected to address the issue fully.

It’s unclear how much of that second report will be made public.

The first report, the one announced by Conaway on Monday, will be made public after a declassification review by the intelligence community.

The draft document asserts that the panel found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, according to a brief summary released by the committee.

It will also include “how anti-Trump research made its way from Russian sources to the [Hillary] Clinton campaign,” an apparent reference to the controversial dossier of opposition research on Trump compiled in part by former British spy Christopher Steele, who was hired by the research firm Fusion GPS.

The GOP report will also include a section covering what the committee believes were criminal leaks related to the dossier, though Conaway said the committee lacked the evidence to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department. 

The report also includes recommendations for both Congress and the executive branch, including election security, government response to cyberattacks and support to European allies.

— Olivia Beavers contributed.