Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (Fla.) went on CNN on Monday night with the intention of defending a draft report written by his fellow Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee — who announced earlier in the day that they had found no evidence that President Trump’s campaign had conspired with Russia and did not think Russia had even tried to help Trump get elected.
The report has been disowned by Democrats on the panel, who say it ignores evidence of collusion, contradicts CIA and FBI assessments, and undermines a special counsel’s ongoing investigation of whether Trump’s team worked with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
So it could have used Rooney’s defense.
But as CNN’s Erin Burnett repeatedly challenged him to defend the report, the congressman not only contradicted a GOP colleague on his panel but also said that partisan infighting had caused the year-long investigation to lose “all credibility.”
Rooney spent his first minutes on CNN denying what The Washington Post and other outlets had reported that evening: that the report concluded that the Kremlin had not tried to help Trump win.
“It’s far more objective than that,” Rooney said. “I don’t know where this conclusion is coming from that we’ve concluded we don’t see anything [where] the Russians were intending to hurt Hillary [Clinton] and help Trump.”
But as Rooney spoke, Burnett got word that the intelligence committee’s leader, Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), had told reporters that “we disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”
Burnett read this quote to Rooney. “That’s the opposite of what you just told me,” she said.
“It’s not completely the opposite,” replied the congressman, who last month announced his retirement.
Rooney said that Russia helped Trump during the election but that the country also helped Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “Their goal was to create mayhem so any candidate that won — and they did believe Hillary would win — would be bloodied and weakened,” he said. “I absolutely think there was evidence they were trying to help Trump at some points.”
With that on the record, Burnett noted that the minority of Democrats on the committee were planning to release their own report, which is likely to include what they say is evidence that Trump’s campaign worked with Russia to help get Trump elected.
The panel’s Democrats have objected to their GOP colleagues’ decision to release a report before special counsel Robert S. Mueller III completes a federal investigation of whether Russia conspired with Trump’s campaign. That inquiry, in contrast to the House panel’s, appears to be intensifying and drawing closer to the president’s inner circle.
“Why are you all ending it?” Burnett asked.
“We’ve gone completely off the rails,” Rooney replied. “We’re basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day’s news.”
He didn’t specify which leaks he meant, and accusations have fallen on members of both parties in the committee. Trump has accused the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), of leaking confidential information. But the Senate Intelligence Committee (which is also investigating the Russian matter) suspects that Republicans on the House panel have leaked information that undermines Mueller’s investigation, The Post has reported. In any case, the three investigations and their various Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan members could hardly be more out of alignment.
On CNN, Rooney appeared to blame his panel’s Democrats for beginning the decline into partisanship. But he said that “we’ve lost all credibility” after a year of work. “That’s why I called for the investigation to end.”
Rooney also addressed accusations that the House investigation was a whitewash and that it did not seek documents or press witnesses for information that could implicate Trump. While the majority on the House panel found no evidence of wrongdoing in the president’s campaign, the special counsel’s team has charged four former campaign aides with crimes, and some have pleaded guilty.
“We have to go with the facts and evidence we’ve seen in the committee,” Rooney told CNN. “Over 60 witnesses we interviewed, the documents … asking them point blank to their face: Was there any collusion, coordination or conspiracy?”
He added: “In this system, you have to assume people are telling the truth. If it comes out they were lying, there’s consequences for that.”
Rooney said the panel hoped Democrats and Republicans could reconcile before the final report is released in several days and find ways to keep Russia from disrupting the 2018 midterm campaigns, something both parties fear it will try to do.
“If we don’t get any of these recommendation out before this cycle gets fully underway, then we really have completely wasted a year of everybody’s time,” he said.