Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr and ranking Democratic member Mark Warner appeared on Wednesday to give an update on the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. While the committee was not ready to give definitive answers on any topic, they indicated that they were very close to closing out a few issues. An example: the original intelligence assessment indicating that Russia was behind actions to steal and distribute Democratic emails was accurate.
While most of the focus was on the extent of the investigation to this point—over 100 interviews, over 100,000 documents, thousands of hours of evaluation—there were several points on which Burr and Warner would not give a definitive statement. In particular, when it comes to the central issue of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials, Burr would only say that the issue of collusion was “still open.”
Burr had effusive praise both for the intelligence committee and their statements on Russian interference, and for members of the Obama administration who appeared before the committee to explain both their methods and motivations as they attempted to raise awareness of Russian actions.
A less favorable opinion was handed to Homeland Security, which only last week finally released all the states where they learned about Russian attempts to invade voter rolls or directly corrupt the voting process. While Burr made a definitive statement that nothing Russia did “affected vote tallies,” that’s not the same as saying that Russia did not interfere through altering voter registrations.
There were some topics on which the committee seemed to have reached either a dead end or a roadblock, such as the Steele Dossier, where Burr insisted they could not move forward without some cooperation from British security consultant Christopher Steele. The most interesting point of the conference was that not only were both senators insistent that collusion was still an open issue, but neither of them tried to amend that with any statement such as “we currently have no evidence but ...” Collusion is just … open.
There were some issues about which Burr seemed somewhat dismissive. For example, the meeting at the Mayflower Hotel, where Trump delivered his first foreign policy speech and the Russian ambassador was on hand, appears to have turned up no meat for the investigation. Likewise, Burr seemed to indicate that changes to the Republican platform—though numerous articles have tied them to efforts to create a more pro-Russia policy in Ukraine—were made in an attempt to balance concerns in Ukraine with improving relations with Russia. He indicated that the committee had completed its work there.
One surprising area that Burr seemed to dismiss were issues around former FBI Director James Comey. Burr indicated that the investigation had “reached a logical conclusion” on the topic, but he didn’t say what that conclusion was, or indicate whether it was limited by access. In mentioning how the investigation had expanded from its initial purview, Burr did not mention any investigation of potential obstruction, and it may be that the committee did not look at actions around Comey in this light.
On the topic of collusion, Burr indicated they were continuing to investigate and conduct interviews looking for “any hint” of collusion. He followed this immediately with a statement:
"I will confirm that the Russian intelligence service is determined, clever, and every campaign should take it seriously."
Which may indicate they saw collusion more as Russia forces dangling information and trying to get the Trump campaign to “bite.”
Warner followed this with a warning that "Russian active measures efforts did not end on Election Day 2016," and discussion of how Russia had interfered with the elections in France, Germany, and elsewhere. Warner also followed up on Russian efforts to invade voting systems in at least 21 states and how disappointed he was that Homeland Security refused to reveal some information until last week.
"You could pick two or three states and two or three jurisdictions and alter an election."
Both senators reiterated the need to improve security in advance of upcoming elections.
On the topic of Russia’s use of social media, Warner noted a 700 percent increase in the use of digital ads between 2012 and 2016. He warned that the ads were especially dangerous not just because they could target particular voters, but because the limited focus means that candidates may not be aware of ads that are being run against—or for—them in certain areas.
Burr indicated that the committee will not be releasing the Facebook ads (in fact, won’t be releasing any of the documents it has obtained for the investigation, or transcripts of interviews) but said that Facebook, Twitter, and Google have been invited to public hearings in October and November.
On the subject of the Steele dossier, Burr said “Unfortunately the committee has hit a wall." And indicated that while they’ve invited Steele to testify "Those offers have gone unaccepted." Burr said that …
“The committee cannot really decide the credibility of the dossier without understanding who paid for it, who are the sources ...”
Burr mentioned that Steele was one of several witnesses the committee still hopes to interview—and warned U.S. citizens invited to appear that it was not an optional request.
In the question-and-answer session that followed, Burr was asked if the investigation was a “hoax" and if evidence ruled out any contact between Trump and Russia. He once again responded that the "issue of collusion is still open."
Also in the follow-up, Warner said it was important that the public see the ads that were placed on social media, though Burr stepped in to say that the ads were “indiscriminate.”
“If you look only at the social media advertising that we have seen, there's no way you can look at that and say it was solely to help the right side of the ideological chart, or the left. They were indiscriminate.”
Still, the existence of ads that appear to support different positions doesn’t mean those ads weren’t deployed in a way that was designed to harm a campaign more than help it.
It’s almost certain that the Trump team will focus on the information that social media ads didn’t support just Trump, and particularly that the investigation again stated that “no vote totals were affected.”
But this was far from the exoneration that Trump may have wanted.