House panel releases long-awaited transcripts from Russia probe
The House Intelligence Committee on Thursday released the long-delayed transcripts related to the GOP-led investigation by the panel into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The committee released 57 transcript interviews from 2017-2018 that reveal what was said behind closed doors as lawmakers sought to determine whether members of the Trump campaign and Russia coordinated to tip the scales of the election. While the committee has already released a report on its findings from the investigation, the transcripts have since been tied up in a classification review.
While former special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately did not find evidence over the course of his own investigation of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, Democrats and Republicans on the committee were divided over the testimonies they received.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) asserted that the transcripts proved that Russia sought to hurt then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help candidate Donald Trump — a point GOP lawmakers on the panel contested.
“Despite the many barriers put in our way by the then-Republican Majority, and attempts by some key witnesses to lie to us and obstruct our investigation, the transcripts that we are releasing today show precisely what Special Counsel Robert Mueller also revealed: That the Trump campaign, and Donald Trump himself, invited illicit Russian help, made full use of that help, and then lied and obstructed the investigations in order to cover up this misconduct,” Schiff said in a statement.
The transcripts detail interviews with a number of current and former Trump administration officials and Trump allies, including former chief strategist Steve Bannon, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, former campaign aide Corey Lewandowski, and former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
The interviews also include those with top law enforcement and intelligence officials from the Obama administration, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone’s transcript had already become public as a result of his criminal case. He was convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and other charges last year in connection with Mueller’s investigation.
The release of the transcripts comes roughly two years after the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee concluded its investigation into Russian interference, a probe that was marked by partisanship. Republicans on the committee notably broke with the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the election in part to help Trump win — an opinion that goes against Democrats on the panel, the bipartisan findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe and the intelligence community assessment.
Schiff eventually revived and expanded the committee’s investigation after Democrats won control of the House at the end of 2018.
Mueller concluded his investigation in March 2019, finding that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in “sweeping and systematic fashion.” While Mueller found that Trump’s campaign welcomed Russia’s release of hacked information, the special counsel did not find evidence to charge a conspiracy between the Kremlin and the campaign. Mueller also did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed the investigation.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference was markedly bipartisan, with the committee concluding that Russia interfered with the goal of assisting the Trump campaign. The Senate panel has released four volumes of its investigation, with a fifth on counterintelligence measures still to come.
The transcripts show that Coats spoke frankly about his conversations with Trump during his June 2017 interview. He said the president on a number of occasions raised the fact that he believed his job had been “compromised” by the assertion he colluded with the Russians.
“He has each time said: I haven’t colluded with the Russians, but it is really hampering what I am trying to do. lt is saturating the news,” Coats told the panel.
Coats at one point described a conversation he had with Trump, who vowed against the allegations that he slept with Russian prostitutes as laid out in the so-called Steele dossier — a compilation of memos detailing allegations about Trump’s contacts with Russia.
“I swear to you on the soul of my son, I had nothing to do with that prostitution. And for them to take me aside and raise that issue and then have it leaked,” Coats recalled the president telling him.
“He said, ‘how would you like it if — how do you go home and talk to your wife when it is plastered all over the place that you were using prostitutes in Russia and you are having your family hear that and having your son hear that?’ … He was just really, really impacted,” he added.
Coats also told the committee that Trump asked him if he could publicly state that there was no collusion, and that he didn’t believe it was appropriate.
“I guess he was thinking: Look, you are the Director of DNl. He was probably in his mind thinking: Hey, you are — if anybody knows what is going on in intelligence, from an intelligence standpoint, you must be, you say it. I did not think it was appropriate to do that,” Coats said.
Coats went on to say that he did not feel influenced in his conversations with Trump but said that he was “uncomfortable at times because I didn’t think he should be asking me could I say something publicly.” He said he later expressed frustration with his staff at Trump’s request that he make a public statement about there being no collusion.
Clapper told the committee he never saw any “direct empirical evidence” that the Trump campaign or someone part of it was plotting or conspiring with the Russians to meddle in the election.
Clapper also said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was “absolutely” successful in his effort to undermine the credibility of the U.S. election process.
Clapper described the Russian objectives as evolving from sowing discord to harming Clinton and said their approach shifted once they saw Trump to be a serious candidate.
“Their objectives evolved. First, sow discord. Tremendous animus towards Mrs. Clinton. And as things evolved, and when it became evident that President Trump was a serious candidate, then I think their approach evolved as well,” Clapper said in his July 2017 interview.
Much of the news in the transcripts had either been leaked or previously revealed, whether in interviews or court hearings.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence panel voted unanimously in 2018 to make the transcripts available to the public, but they were delayed during a classification review.
“[I]t is long past time that these are released,” acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell said in a statement, following their release.
Updated at 7:50 p.m.