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It’s obviously premature to absolve the Trump campaign on the collusion question

President Trump addresses a Wounded Warriors event on Thursday in the East Room of the White House. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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Shortly after Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released a report finalizing their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the New York Times reported a new detail that’s obviously salient to the question of how or if the campaign of President Trump aided that interference.

Since news of a secret meeting at Trump Tower between senior Trump campaign officials and Russia-linked individuals was reported, attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, one of the attendees, was identified as having ties to the Kremlin. She and the Kremlin have denied it. On Friday, though, the Times revealed that Veselnitskaya does have ties to the Kremlin — ones she admits to in a new interview with NBC News, airing Friday during “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.”

“I am a lawyer, and I am an informant,” she said in the NBC interview. “Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.”

If “Russian prosecutor general” sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because of this:

“The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with [musician Emin Agalarov’s] father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.”

That’s the email sent by music promoter Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump Jr. that initiated the meeting at Trump Tower. There is no “Crown” prosecutor in Russia; Goldstone, a native of Britain, was apparently referring to the prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika.

In other words, we learned on Friday that there was a direct tie between Veselnitskaya and the Kremlin — and to the person who apparently spurred the June 2016 meeting intended to express “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

This isn’t a smoking gun, by any means. But it’s information that the House Intelligence Committee didn’t uncover before it finalized its report absolving the Trump campaign of any coordination with Russian actors.

The Trump Tower meeting is addressed in the report. Over the course of three-and-a-half pages, the report makes the case that the meeting wasn’t understood by all of the attendees to be predicated on negative information about Hillary Clinton and that no such information was shared. It notes that Goldstone “admitted to embellishing the contents of the email solely for the purpose of gaining a response from Trump Jr.” It makes no mention of Veselnitskaya’s rumored ties to the Russian government or those of lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin. It doesn’t explore the question of whether Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov spoke on the phone before the meeting, which seems likely. At no point did the House Intelligence Committee interview Paul Manafort, another attendee at that meeting, despite notes he took during that meeting being discussed as part of other investigations.

Update: Our Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent report that committee Republicans declined to issue a subpoena that would have clarified Trump Jr.’s calls as he was setting up the Trump Tower meeting.

There is slightly less analysis of the Trump Tower meeting in the report than there is of discussion about the development of the dossier of information compiled on behalf of a law firm representing the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. That Veselnitskaya also hired that law firm is mentioned as incriminating evidence.

It’s not only here that the report seems to leave questions unanswered. Consider Carter Page, the campaign adviser who was at the center of the debate over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation earlier this year. Page was the subject of a counterintelligence FISA warrant beginning in October 2016 following a trip he took to Moscow the previous July. In September 2016, Yahoo News, apparently working off information provided by Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier, reported that Page had met with senior Russian officials during that trip. Page denied it.

In testimony before the House committee, though, he admitted having spoken briefly with a deputy prime minister of Russia. Asked about an email in which he described a lengthier conversation with that official, Page downplayed it.

“Ultimately,” the report reads, “[Page] failed to clearly explain whom he meant when he referred to sources close to Russian government in his executive summary.” That’s part of the 30th finding included in the report, which also states that “the Committee is concerned about his seemingly incomplete accounts of his activity in Moscow.”

There will always be leads that can’t be chased down and questions that can’t be answered. But finalizing a report while acknowledging having received incomplete accounts from someone significant enough to matters to have resulted in a FISA warrant seems like an abrogation of the committee’s responsibility.

The report isn’t only about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, but its assessment that there wasn’t evidence of any such collusion was quickly seized upon by Trump.

This isn’t what the report says. None of the findings makes the claim above, instead either indicating a lack of evidence about specific possibilities (like collusion resulting from Trump’s business activities before his campaign) or stating that “[w]hen asked directly, none of the interviewed witnesses provided evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.” Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix was recorded saying that his interview with the committee’s Republicans consisted of three questions. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said that this was accurate and that the three questions the Republicans generally asked were “Did you conspire, did you collude, did you coordinate with Russians?”

“And if the answer was ‘no,’ ” Schiff said, “they were pretty much done.”

Trump declared himself innocent of any collusion shortly after the investigation became public. Last May, he seized on a comment from former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., who’d told NBC’s Chuck Todd that no evidence of collusion was included in the intelligence community’s report and that he didn’t know about any. Clapper later acknowledged that he wasn’t privy to every aspect of the investigation and that he “[didn’t] know if there was collusion or not.” But Trump seized on Clapper’s words as exculpatory.

The point of the investigations into possible collusion is to see if that evidence exists. At the beginning of the investigation it doesn’t, just as criminal investigations don’t result in immediate arrests of suspects — or immediate, sweeping determinations of innocence.

The House report acknowledged that it was offering its absolution based only on what it knows in the moment.

“We acknowledge that Investigations by other committees, the Special Counsel, the media, or interest groups will continue and may find facts that were not readily accessible to the Committee or outside the scope of our investigation,” it reads. But instead of seeking out more information or continuing to interview witnesses (like campaign adviser George Papadopoulos or deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, neither of whom were interviewed) the committee went ahead and concluded its investigation. Its chairman is longtime Trump ally (and transition team member) Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — the person who pushed for the release of a disputed memo about the Carter Page FISA warrant earlier this year.

If and when more information relevant to the investigation emerges — as it did on Friday with the Times report — the prematurity of the committee’s conclusion will become only more apparent.

This article was updated following NBC’s confirmation of the Times report.