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Russia probe: Did Trump campaign and Kremlin collude? Congress unlikely to provide answer

WASHINGTON — Did the Trump campaign collude with the Russians to try to ensure that Donald Trump would be elected president in 2016?
It’s one of the central questions of congressional investigations into Russian meddling, but Congress is unlikely to answer it when their probes conclude in the next few months, legal experts say.
“Will they provide Americans with a definitive answer on collusion? Certainly not,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and the special deputy chief counsel for the House Iran-Contra Committee’s investigation of the Reagan administration. “People will be frustrated.”
A straightforward answer to the question would require bold bipartisanship, and that’s not something Congress seems able to muster, experts said.
Instead, the final reports from Congress appear to be, at best, heading toward conclusions that focus narrowly on what Republicans and Democrats can agree on: that Russia waged an extensive campaign to interfere in the 2016 election and must be stopped from doing it again.
Beyond that, Americans should expect separate, partisan conclusions about whether the Trump campaign and the Kremlin coordinated efforts to elect Trump.
“There isn’t going to be one single congressional position to sum things up for people,” Tiefer said.
When the White House and Congress are controlled by the same political party, congressional oversight is typically “not very energetic,” said Kathleen Clark, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis and former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“There is a disincentive to embarrass the executive branch,” she said. Trump has repeatedly said that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russian officials.
The House Intelligence Committee has been bitterly divided along party lines, and lawmakers on both sides acknowledge that they will probably end up issuing two separate reports: one from the Republican majority and another from the Democratic minority.
“I would expect a report from the majority that attempts to exonerate Trump,” Clark said. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., served on the Trump transition team and has been a strong supporter of the president.
On the flip side, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a former federal prosecutor who serves as the committee’s senior Democrat, has already publicly outlined “ample evidence” of collusion, which will likely be the focus of a Democratic report.
Among the evidence that Schiff cited: Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with a Russian attorney at Trump Tower in June 2016 after being promised “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Even the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has operated in a much more bipartisan way, appears unlikely to agree on the issue of collusion.
Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., was asked at a recent meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations whether he agreed with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, that the committee would unite on what the Russians did but split on whether they colluded with the Trump campaign.
“That’s the area where politics potentially could come into play,” Burr said, referring to collusion. “And last time I checked, this town was full of politics. So I expect it to continue.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who serves on the committee, said Wednesday that the panel has not focused enough on the financial connections between Trump, Trump’s associates, and Russia.
“Following the money is a critical component of any counterintelligence investigation, particularly when there are this many indicators of extensive, long-standing and illicit financial relationships,” Wyden wrote to Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va.
Without that information, the committee can’t reach any real conclusion on collusion, Clark said.
“The financial ties that happened before Trump was president may have paved the way for coordination and help explain the motivation,” she said. “In other words, the financial ties may be the Petri dish that collusion grew out of.”
While Congress is shying away from the issue of collusion, special counsel Robert Mueller appears to be actively investigating it, along with whether President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice by trying to cover up evidence of collusion. The congressional committees have left the obstruction issue to Mueller.
Mueller has indicted four former Trump campaign aides and 13 Russian nationals as part of his ongoing probe into Russian interference in the presidential election.
Critics have questioned whether congressional investigations are needed at all since the special counsel is aggressively conducting his own inquiry on behalf of the Department of Justice.
But legal experts say that the Senate committee could still play an important role by clearly laying out all the evidence of Russian meddling — from the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to the manipulation of U.S. social media — in a single bipartisan report. That alone would push back on President Trump’s past statements that he isn’t sure if the Russians interfered or not.
“Even if nothing new comes out, that would still be a very bad news day for the president,” said Andrew Wright, an associate professor at Savannah Law School in Georgia and former staff director of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release recommendations to states soon on how to protect their election systems from Russian hackers, who tried to penetrate systems in 21 states in 2016.
“Not since the Cold War have we felt an intelligence effort in the U.S. like Russia is waging against us now,” Tiefer said. “This is a new kind of Cold War that the Senate Intelligence Committee would be sounding the alarm about and telling us how to shield the country from in 2020 and beyond.”

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