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By Ken Dilanian
WASHINGTON — After two years and 200 interviews, the Senate Intelligence Committee is approaching the end of its investigation into the 2016 election, having uncovered no direct evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
But investigators disagree along party lines when it comes to the implications of a pattern of contacts they have documented between Trump associates and Russians — contacts that occurred before, during and after Russian intelligence operatives were seeking to help Trump by leaking hacked Democratic emails and attacking his opponent on social media.
“If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week in an interview with CBS News.
Burr was careful to note that more facts may yet be uncovered, but he also made clear that the investigation was nearing an end.
“We know we’re getting to the bottom of the barrel because there’re not new questions that we’re searching for answers to,” Burr said.
Democratic Senate investigators who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity did not dispute Burr’s characterizations, but said they lacked context.
“We were never going find a contract signed in blood saying, ‘Hey Vlad, we’re going to collude,” one Democratic aide said.
The series of contacts between Trump’s associates, his campaign officials, his children and various Russians suggest a campaign willing to accept help from a foreign adversary, the Democrats say.
By many counts, Trump and his associates had more than 100 contacts with Russians before the January 2017 presidential inauguration.
“Donald Trump Jr. made clear in his messages that he was willing to accept help from the Russians,” one Democratic Senate investigator said. “Trump publicly urged the Russians to find Clinton’s missing emails.”
Those facts are beyond dispute. But they also have been known for some time — and have not seemed to change Trump’s political standing.
Democrats and other Trump opponents have long believed that special counsel Robert Mueller and Congressional investigators would unearth new and more explosive evidence of Trump campaign coordination with Russians. Mueller may yet do so, although Justice Department and Congressional sources say they believe that he, too, is close to wrapping up his investigation.
House Republicans announced last year they had found no evidence of collusion, but their report came under immediate criticism as a highly partisan product that excluded Democrats. Now in power, House Democrats recently announced an expanded probe that will go beyond the 2016 election to examine whether any foreign government has undue financial influence on Trump or his family. And New York prosecutors are pursuing their own criminal inquiry related to hush money payments to women. The investigations into Donald Trump, therefore, are far from over.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has been conducting the sole bipartisan inquiry, led by Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia. The committee has sifted through some 300,000 documents, investigators tell NBC News, including classified intelligence shedding light on how the Russians communicated about their covert operation to interfere in the 2016 election.
U.S. intelligence agencies assess that the operation began as an effort to sow chaos and morphed into a plan to help Trump win. It included the hacking and leaking of embarrassing Democratic emails and the use of bots, trolls and fake accounts on social media to boost Trump, criticize Democrat Hillary Clinton and exacerbate political differences.
Predictably, Burr’s comments led Trump to tweet that he had been fully vindicated, which is not the case.
“Senator Richard Burr, The Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, just announced that after almost two years, more than two hundred interviews, and thousands of documents, they have found NO COLLUSION BETWEEN TRUMP AND RUSSIA!” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Is anybody really surprised by this?”
Democratic Senate investigators say it may take them six or seven months to craft their final report once they are done with witness interviews. They say they have uncovered facts yet to be made public, and that they hope to make Americans more fully aware of the extent to which the Russians manipulated the U.S. presidential election with the help of some Trump officials, witting or unwitting.
The report, Democrats say, will not be good for Trump.
But they also made clear they haven’t found proof of their worst fear: That the president formed a corrupt pact with Russia to offer sanctions relief or other favorable treatment in return for Russian help in the election.
After it recently emerged that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort shared campaign polling data with a man the FBI says is linked to Russian intelligence, Warner called that the most persuasive evidence yet of coordination.
“This appears as the closest we’ve seen yet to real, live, actual collusion,” he said on CNN.
No evidence has emerged, however, linking the transfer of polling data to Trump. Also unclear in court documents is Manafort’s motive for sharing the information. Facing more than a decade in prison for bank and tax fraud, he has not been accused by Mueller of any crimes related to the 2016 election.
Burr, in the CBS interview, said the motivations behind the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians were in some cases impossible to discern.
“There’s an awful lot of connections of all these people,” he said. “They may not be connections that are tied to 2016 elections in the United States, but just the sheer fact that they have a relationship — it may be business. It may be Russian intelligence. It may be they’re all on the payroll of Oleg Deripaska,” he added, referring to a Russian oligarch tied to Putin who had business dealings with Manafort.
The final Senate report may not reach a conclusion on whether the contacts added up to collusion or coordination with Russia, Burr said.
Democrats told NBC News that’s a distinct possibility.
“What I’m telling you is that I’m going to present, as best we can, the facts to you and to the American people,” Burr told CBS. “And you’ll have to draw your own conclusion as to whether you think that, by whatever definition, that’s collusion.”
'Beyond audacious!' UK accused of 'fanciful demands' in EU talks – trade deal at risk
THE UK has been accused of making “fanciful demands” of the European Union during post-Brexit trade talks, in a move described by one political expert as “beyond audacious” and a strategy that could completely derail already-fragile negotiations.
Trump’s Michigan voter fraud comments reveal America’s desperate need for reforms
Last week, President Donald Trump took his attacks on voting by mail to new heights as he threatened to withhold federal funds from Michigan and Nevada if they continued to implement vote-by-mail in their states.
“The threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and, I think, something that is unacceptable,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told “CBS This Morning.” Other observers saw shades of Trump’s attempt to withhold military equipment from Ukraine to extort that country into opening a criminal investigation into his leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. This action led to Trump’s impeachment.
With his recent broadside, Trump is building on his continuing false charges that voting-by-mail would lead to widespread fraud — despite the absence of any evidence to support his baseless claims. In fact, both red states and blue states have instituted the practice without problem.
Trump’s actions suggest he is interested in suppressing the November vote. Why? Perhaps because he thinks that the more eligible Americans he can prevent from voting, the better his chances of being re-elected. If you make it easier for more people to vote with absentee and mail-in ballots, Trump said on “Fox & Friends, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
This could also be the reason that some Republicans have been pressing to restrict voting-by-mail. In Wisconsin, for example, the Republican state legislature blocked the Democratic governor’s efforts to mail ballots to all voters and the Republican majority on the state Supreme Court overruled his effort to move the April primary to June. This backfired, however, when a Democrat won an upset election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
This isn’t a purely political issue, it’s a question of safety. Voting-by-mail during this pandemic means that citizens will not have to choose between their votes and their lives.
But Trump looks to be up to more than suppressing the vote. He could be attempting to set the stage to challenge the legitimacy of the election if he loses — by claiming widespread voter fraud in the mailed ballots. Let’s keep in mind that even when Trump won in 2016, he challenged the election results, claiming without a shred of evidence that three million to five million votes were illegally counted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. This is the reason, he insisted, that she won the popular vote.
Much needs to be done to provide for safe and secure voting. State and local election officials need substantial amounts of federal funds to administer the vastly increased number of mailed-in ballots that will be cast in the November elections in the face of the coronavirus. Money is also required to make the adjustments necessary for safe in-person voting.
The House recently approved these essential funds with the HEROES Act, stimulus relief legislation, which includes $3.6 billion for the November elections. This money is needed to pay for crucial additional expenditures — ballot printing, postage, drop boxes for absentee ballots and appropriate security, secure electronic absentee ballot request technology, ballot tracking, improvements to absentee ballot processing, additional facilities for both ballot processing and storage, additional staffing to support absentee ballot processing, polling facilities that meet public health standards and increased poll worker support.
The act also provides $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has an essential role to play in effective voting by mail and which has major financial woes. Trump regularly attacks the Postal Service, has installed a political crony as postmaster general and prevented the service, to date, from receiving the federal funding it needs to properly function.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. R-Ky., has been slow walking this next round of stimulus legislation. Throughout this Congress, he has also blocked adequate funding for the states to conduct the November elections. And McConnell has prevented Senate consideration of all legislative efforts in this Congress to protect against foreign interference in our elections.
Negotiations on the next round of stimulus relief are now expected to begin in June, with a deal expected sometime in July. But the longer it takes to get money to the states, the more difficult it will be for them to conduct a safe, secure, and fair election in November.
But even when the election is over, we will still have a broken political system, a corrupt campaign finance system and an endangered democracy.
The current campaign finance system is dominated by influence-seeking billionaires and millionaires, Super PACs, dark money nonprofit groups, bundlers, lobbyists and powerful special interests. The current voting system is rife with barriers that discriminate against minorities, suppress voting and leave tens of millions of eligible voters unregistered.
Partisan gerrymandering often results in officeholders choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their representative, denying the American people fair representation. The ethics abuses and corrupt practices of Trump and his administration are unmatched in U.S. history. Trump’s refusal to give up ownership of his businesses, for example, have created enumerable domestic and foreign conflicts of interest. Ethics problems exist in all three branches of government.
We will face an historic opportunity in 2021 to enact the most transformational reform legislation ever considered by Congress.
Assuming the current polls hold up in November, we will face an historic opportunity in 2021 to enact arguably the most transformational reform legislation ever considered by Congress. It is designed to repair our political system, reform our campaign finance laws and revitalize our democracy.
This legislative package, known as H.R. 1, passed the House in March 2019. McConnell, however, has blocked its consideration in the Senate.
Unrigging the system in Washington is a prerequisite to achieving the substantive changes that could be pursued in the next Congress and future years. Democratic congressional leaders — and their members who unanimously supported H.R.1 — have correctly recognized that Washington’s rigged system must be ended to pave the way for solving the nation’s problems.
Biden has said, should he win, a first priority for his administration will be to push through the kinds of reforms found in the bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. D-Calif., prioritized the critical need for democracy reform by making it the first order of business in this Congress. She has committed to doing the same in the next Congress. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has committed to making the bill one of his first three priorities if Democrats control the Senate in January 2021.
H.R 1 has been carefully crafted to obtain the support it needs to pass Congress and cannot become a Christmas tree on which to hang other substantive or systemic reforms without dangerously jeopardizing its enactment.
In contrast to earlier decades of bipartisan support for democracy reforms, congressional Republicans in the last 10 years have almost universally opposed these reforms. At the state and local level, however, bipartisan democracy reforms have been enacted. Most important, the American people object to Washington’s rigged system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
McConnell has now spent decades using either obstructionist filibusters by the minority or his scheduling powers in the majority to block Senate consideration of democracy reforms. But a new Senate Democratic majority would no longer allow this.
The Senate filibuster rules may not be eliminated. But after McConnell has used an exception to the filibuster rules to pack the federal judiciary with conservative and right-wing judges, there is bound to be room for a second exception to allow a majority to determine the rules of our democracy.
It looks like we are on the cusp of enacting an historic package of democracy reforms to repair our political system and restore our democracy. The constitutional system of representative government given to us by the Founders is on the line.
Trump gutted the checks on his power when they were most needed
WASHINGTON — Several weeks ago, President Donald Trump forced the Food and Drug Administration to reverse a safety ruling and clear the way for one of the nation’s premier defense contractors to sell, service and operate new machines that reprocess N95 face masks for health care workers.
Within two weeks, Battelle, the company that makes the machines, had a contract from the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency to recycle masks for up to 20 uses each at locations across the country. The no-bid deal, ordered up by the White House coronavirus task force, is worth up to $600 million.
But nurses, doctors and scientists who have spoken to NBC News about Battelle’s hydrogen peroxide vapor chambers said the process it uses remains unproven over long-term use and using masks cleaned by it more than a couple of times could leave front-line health care workers vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.
Time may tell whether Trump’s intervention benefited health care workers and taxpayers as much as it helped him and the company. But it is already clear how Trump has killed oversight, and how he is taking advantage of its death to help himself politically in a re-election year.
He brazenly steamrolled FDA experts. His special task force in charge of medical supplies, which operates outside the authority of any existing agency, deployed emergency powers to award the Battelle contract without competition or any significant consideration of similar technologies. He has ordered task force members not to testify before Congress for the time being. And, last month, as part of a purge of the inspectors general who would be empowered to investigate aspects of the coronavirus response, he got rid of the Pentagon’s top watchdog, who would oversee the deal.
There is effectively no independent oversight of the Battelle deal or others like it.
A president proud of his work and his intentions should welcome the validation of those checks. But Trump has neutralized them at a time when more money is being pumped out of Washington at a faster pace than ever before. Indeed, he just appointed his own legal counsel and senior adviser to oversee stimulus-law spending.
His detractors are horrified by the situation, but his loyalists see his roughshod run over competing power centers as the proper exercise of power by a just president.
Eric Havian, a whistleblower law expert at the law firm of Constantine Cannon, argues that while “temporary trimming of oversight is surely understandable” during a crisis, whistleblowers offer a “supplement to the government’s oversight.”
Under another president, that might work. But Trump canned the intelligence community inspector general who bucked him by backing a whistleblower during the Ukraine scandal. He has trashed whistleblowers who have come forward publicly. Those actions and others have made clear there will be brutal consequences for anyone in the administration who questions him.
The lack of oversight means voters will have less information by which to judge the president when they go to the polls. Trump surely understands that.
When he stepped in to help the company, he was desperate to show he was taking action after a slow-footed response to the disease’s arrival in the United States. He was on the wrong end of a daily brawl with governors of both parties who pleaded for the federal government to provide supplies to their states amid harrowing shortages. Politically, he needed to first quiet a bipartisan chorus of criticism and then change its tune.
On March 29, the day after the FDA gave the company partial clearance to use its mask-recycling system, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican whose state houses the company’s headquarters, got on the phone to complain to Trump. The language of the waiver prevented Battelle from deploying the machines outside its headquarters and limited the number of masks it could service in a day.
After talking to DeWine, Trump pressured FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to change the waiver, and it was done within hours. The three men applauded one another publicly. An FDA spokesperson told NBC News this week that the decision was based on “new information” but did not respond when asked if that information was scientific or political.
The political value of delivering for DeWine and Ohio was more clear — it’s been 80 years since a winning presidential candidate didn’t take the state. The same was true for Trump’s direction of ventilators to the battleground states of Colorado and Arizona and his careful attention to the equipment needs of potentially decisive Florida.
The FDA waiver was just the start of the story. Within five days, the White House coronavirus task force had agreed to buy 60 machines for $1 million apiece. Five days after that, the task force decided to pay Battelle $413 million to include the cost of operating them, which was required by the FDA waiver.
The task force went ahead with the purchase despite an objection from a Health and Human Services Department expert on federal supply-chain finances, and by May 1 the ceiling on the deal had risen to $600 million, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.
From the perspective of Trump’s politics, it doesn’t matter whether the machines are as effective as Battelle says they are — or if the cost to taxpayers is justified.
He showed quick action after a delayed response to the virus, granted a lucrative deal to a powerful company in the midst of an economic crisis and turned criticism from a prominent Republican governor in a crucial swing state into praise. He also eased his own burden of trying to acquire new masks.
Over the long term, if nurses working with coronavirus patients get sick, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove it was the result of masks degraded as part of the recycling program. The FDA spokesperson told NBC News that the company has reported damage to 94 masks so far, representing less than two-hundredths of a percent of the number decontaminated.
It will also take time to find out whether taxpayers got a good deal for Battelle’s work.
But because Trump has effectively gutted oversight of his administration, only voters can hold him accountable if his decisions were bad — or made for the wrong reasons.
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