While much of the political world was watching the Pennsylvania special election Tuesday night, significant news broke in the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation. Its Republican head, Rep. K. Michael Conaway (Tex.), signaled that he would back off the panel's most controversial finding: That Russia didn't interfere in the 2016 election specifically to benefit President Trump.
Conaway's explanation, though, is something to behold.
Per The Post's Karoun Demirjian, Conaway conceded that it was “clear [the Russians] were trying to hurt Hillary [Clinton].” But, he added, “everybody gets to make up their own mind whether they were trying to hurt Hillary, help Trump. It’s kind of glass half-full, glass half-empty.”
In case there was any doubt that the Intelligence Committee's report was drafted at least partially to please Trump, that should just about erase it.
Conaway is truly splitting hairs here, in a way that's impressive, even from a politician. The U.S. intelligence community and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation have both concluded that Russia aimed to both hurt Clinton and elect Trump. Conaway suggests that the former is undeniably true, while the latter is a matter of personal belief.
But whether Russia was guided more by its distaste for Clinton or its preference for Trump is almost completely irrelevant; the practical effect was the same. Its key actions in the 2016 election — especially the leaking of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta — came when both Trump and Clinton had secured their party nominations and were the only two candidates with real chances at winning. Any effort to harm Clinton was inherently an effort to elect Trump. Conaway's argument is like saying you wanted the Eagles to win the Super Bowl, but you didn't necessarily want the Patriots to lose.
What seems to have happened here is that the committee drafted its report, and then its own GOP members got cold feet about that particular conclusion. Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) both publicly disagreed (to varying degrees) with the finding that Russia didn't aim to help Trump. Rooney went so far as to say the committee had “lost all credibility” — though he didn't specifically attach that claim to the controversial finding.
The House Intelligence Committee has four more Republicans than Democrats, meaning Gowdy and Rooney could have torpedoed the report if they wanted to vote against it. It's not clear that would have happened — Rooney, in particular, offered plenty of equivocation — but the fact that even the panel's Republicans were coming out against the controversial finding clearly forced Conaway's hand. He had said Monday, “We disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump,” and now he's clearly saying they no longer disagree with that — that it'll be an open question, in their minds.
Whatever the final result is probably doesn't matter. The investigation long ago devolved into partisan feuding, thanks to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes's (R-Calif.) strangely pro-Trump actions, which eventually led to an ethics investigation and his ceding control to Conaway.
And Trump seems to have gotten what he wanted: something that further casts doubt upon the idea that he needed Russia's help to win the 2016 election. Trump has downplayed Russian interference repeatedly, apparently believing it undermines his victory. He has even gone so far as to say it had no impact — which, again, is not what the U.S. intelligence community says.
A January poll already showed 1 in 8 Republicans believed Russia interfered to help him. The House Intelligence Committee's report should help Trump solidify that doubt among his base, thanks to some world-class equivocating.