Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee on Friday released a report on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. Although it is meant to exonerate President Trump and everyone around him, what it actually does is bring the utter degradation and disgrace of that committee to its fullest expression.
By contrast, there may be real news in the Democrats’ response to the report. In particular, the Democrats detailed new information that appears to shed light on what Republicans would not do in their investigation.
The response by Democrats makes this important charge: That Republicans refused to follow up on a lead that could have demonstrated whether, despite his denials, Trump had advance knowledge of the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between a group of Russians and Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort.
During an interview with us today, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, expanded on this claim.
The GOP report does address that Trump Tower meeting, allowing that it showed “poor judgment” on the part of the Trump campaign. As we learned from Trump Jr.’s emails, those top Trump campaign officials went to the meeting in the full expectation of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton, supplied by the Russian government. But the GOP report brushes this off, concluding there was “no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, coordinated, or conspired with the Russian government.”
But the Democratic response fills in some extremely important context — and it may involve the president himself, though we cannot know one way or the other right now.
According to the Democratic response, right after Trump Jr. set up the specifics of the meeting, he had two calls with a number in Russia belonging to Emin Agalarov. Between those two calls, the Democratic response recounts, Trump Jr. received a third call from a blocked number. Who might it have been?
Democrats wanted to find out, but Republicans blocked it from happening, according to the Democrats’ response.
“We sought to determine whether that number belonged to the president, because we also ascertained that then-candidate Trump used a blocked number,” Schiff said during our interview. “That would tell us whether Don Jr. sought his father’s permission to take the meeting, and [whether] that was the purpose of that call.”
Schiff added that Democrats asked Republicans to subpoena phone records to determine whose number it was, but Republicans “refused,” Schiff said. “They didn’t want to know whether he had informed his father and sought his permission to take that meeting with the Russians.”
Trump has denied he knew or heard about the meeting. So naturally, any investigator would want to find out if Trump Jr. spoke to his father at the very moment he was arranging the meeting.
Again, we don’t know who made that third call. But if Trump Jr. did inform his father of the meeting in between calls with Emin Agalarov, it would be absolutely explosive news. First, it would mean the president has lied about his knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting. Second, it would show he was an active participant in a manner of speaking, though he wasn’t in the room.
If the Democratic response is accurate, what we know is that Republicans didn’t want to find out one way or the other. “It speaks to all the majority was determined to ignore, and the fundamental unseriousness of what they did,” Schiff said.
There is at least some reason to suspect that Trump may have known about the meeting. As the Democrats point out in their response, on June 7, the day after Trump Jr.’s conversations to set up the meeting, Trump told a crowd:
“I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
The Trump Tower meeting happened two days later, and didn’t produce the promised dirt — and the “major speech” never took place.
We may still find out the truth on this front — because it’s possible special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will take an interest in these phone records, if he hasn’t already.
“I certainly hope that if he hasn’t already that he will,” Schiff said. “I have to think that he has.”
The broader story about this GOP report is that, again and again, it acknowledges contact between members of the Trump campaign and Russians, but essentially says, “Okay sure, that happened, but it wasn’t collusion.” That’s their explanation for the Trump Tower meeting; for Carter Page’s Russia contacts; for George Papadopoulos’ Russian contacts; for everything Paul Manafort did; for the campaign’s enthusiastic use of the material hacked from Democratic email systems; for conversations with the Russian ambassador that Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions later lied about; for all of it.
To paraphrase David St. Hubbins, there’s a fine line between stupid and clever, and the committee’s Republicans seem to think they’re firmly on the right side of it. After conducting seven separate congressional investigations into Benghazi, it is clear they just want the Russia story to go away. The only consolation is that they’re not even competent enough to mount a credible cover-up.
Clarification: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said the Democratic response claimed a third call was made by Donald Trump Jr. In fact, the report says the call came in to Trump Jr. from a blocked number. We have edited the above to correct the error.