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 ConawayDems ramp up subpoena threats GOP zeroes in on Schiff Pelosi rushes to Schiff's defense MORE (R-Texas) and other committee lawmakers over the issue of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preference for then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone 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 GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Democrats put harassment allegations against Trump on back burner Democrats seize on Mueller-Barr friction MORE (R-S.C.) issued a statement that “it is clear” that Russia was “motivated by a desire to harm” Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIt is wrong to say 'no collusion' 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era And the winner of the Robert Mueller Sweepstakes is — Vladimir Putin MORE’s candidacy. Rep. Tom RooneyThomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Hill-HarrisX poll: 76 percent oppose Trump pardoning former campaign aides Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons 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 Clapper10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era Ten post-Mueller questions that could turn the tables on Russia collusion investigators Trump campaign falsely claims Barr revealed 'unlawful spying' in email to supporters MORE.

"I don't know what Vladimir Putin's opinion was,” Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdFreshman House Dems surge past GOP in money race DCCC opens Texas office to protect House pickups, target vulnerable GOP seats Dems ramp up subpoena threats 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.