Intel hearing showcases political divide over Mueller report

The partisan divide on the House Intelligence Committee was on full display Wednesday as Democrats and Republicans sought to broadcast their takeaways from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony Kellyanne Conway: 'I'd like to know' if Mueller read his own report MORE’s report.

Democrats sought to highlight the potential counterintelligence risks stemming from contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow as detailed in Mueller’s report. While Mueller did not ultimately charge members of the Trump campaign with conspiring with Russia, Democrats argued the report nevertheless presents troubling links that could impact national security.

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In his opening remarks, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Schiff offers bill to make domestic terrorism a federal crime New intel chief inherits host of challenges MORE (D-Calif.) declared that Mueller’s report does not vindicate Trump on allegations of Russia “collusion” and that it raises more pressing questions about what happened to the counterintelligence investigation that preceded the special counsel’s probe.

“It may not be a crime to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Or for Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenWyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Hope Hicks defends accuracy of her congressional testimony Gaetz cleared by Florida Bar after Cohen tweet probe MORE to seek the Kremlin's help to do so. It may not be a crime to try to enrich yourself with a foreign business deal even while running for president, or to lie about it to the American people,” Schiff said. “But it is deeply compromising.”

Republicans tried to cast doubt on the FBI’s original probe into links between the Trump campaign and Moscow, suggesting agents acted improperly in various decisions made in the early months of the investigation during the Obama administration.

Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesJuan Williams: Trump, his allies and the betrayal of America Trump expected to nominate Texas GOP lawmaker to replace Dan Coats: report House Republicans claim victory after Mueller hearings MORE (Calif.), the panel’s top Republican and a Trump ally, used his opening statement to rip Democrats and the media for perpetuating what he described as the “collusion hoax.” He also criticized Mueller’s report as a “hit piece” that was selectively edited to bolster Democrats’ argument for impeachment.

“Unfortunately for Democrats, the Mueller dossier, as I call it, either debunked many of their favorite conspiracy theories or did not even find them worth discussing,” Nunes said. 

The result was a hearing that appeared split in two — with Democrats training their questions on what they deemed troubling details in the report, while Republicans zeroed in on the FBI’s use of information from the author of the Steele dossier to apply for a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

The Democrats’ witnesses, two former FBI national security officials who worked under Mueller, emphasized the breadth of the Russian threat and expanded on potential national security concerns raised by contacts between the campaign and Moscow.

Robert Anderson, a former executive assistant director of the FBI’s cyber and criminal investigations branch, said he was disturbed by how quickly the Russians were able to gain access to top officials in the Trump campaign without its members raising red flags.  

“The people around [Trump] weren’t savvy at all, in my opinion, in counterintelligence or national security issues,” Anderson said.

Stephanie Douglas, a former executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, said the decisions by Trump’s associates to lie about their contacts with Russia also made them vulnerable to potential blackmail from Russia.

“The key here is the deception. The deception makes the person vulnerable,” Douglas said when asked by Schiff about false admissions made by ex-Trump attorney Michael Cohen and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“It’s not the fact that he had that conversation whether it was appropriate or inappropriate,” she said of Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. “It is the fact that he chose to be deceptive about it that made him vulnerable.”

Republicans brought their own witness, former federal prosecutor and conservative commentator Andrew McCarthy, who criticized Mueller’s final report as espousing “political assertions” rather than traditional prosecutorial judgments. McCarthy cast doubt on Mueller’s conclusion that Russia sought to help Trump win, saying that Moscow’s main goal was to destabilize the United States.

McCarthy also argued there was nothing wrong about the Trump campaign’s hoping to benefit from negative information published about the Democratic nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAre Democrats turning Trump-like? The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE, likening it to opposition research.

Republicans repeatedly questioned the witnesses about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application for the Page warrant, suggesting the FBI should have provided more fulsome disclosure of the Democratic link to Christopher Steele’s research when applying for it.

McCarthy agreed and argued that the FBI should have treated Steele as a “case agent” rather than a source and should have been more skeptical of his potential motivations for sharing the information.

Still, McCarthy at times appeared to undercut Republicans’ arguments about the investigation.

Under questioning from Schiff, McCarthy said he did not believe that officials who signed off on the Page warrant acted in “bad faith.”

“I think they made a mistake,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy also said that the Trump campaign should have called the FBI to report outreach from the Russians.

“I call the FBI for things probably less serious than that, I imagine,” McCarthy said. “We always want information, any information that would be helpful to us in apprising what the likely intentions of potentially hostile powers are.”

Wednesday’s hearing was decidedly less explosive than the committee’s last open hearing on Russia, during which Republicans sought to expel Schiff from his position as the committee’s chairman.

Still, the proceedings made clear the difference of opinion across the aisle as to the implications of the Russia investigation — evidence of a partisan rift that has dominated the committee since the days of the panel’s first, GOP-led Russia probe.

The hearing notably did not feature testimony from Mueller himself, despite Schiff and other Democrats’ desire to bring him in for public questioning. Mueller telegraphed his resistance to public testimony on May 29 in his first remarks on the investigation.

The House Intelligence and Judiciary committees continue to negotiate for his appearance, but may ultimately look to subpoena Mueller if a deal is not reached.

Schiff expects to hold more hearings on Mueller’s report in the near future, forecasting plans to dig into the cyber and election security findings contained in the special counsel’s report.