A top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee distanced himself from one of the panel's most explosive findings in its Russia investigation — that the FBI, CIA and NSA overplayed their hand when they declared Russia preferred a Donald Trump victory in the 2016 election.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said Tuesday that the evidence gathered by the committee clearly showed Russia's disdain for Trump's rival, Hillary Clinton and was "motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm her candidacy or undermine her Presidency had she prevailed."
A source familiar with Gowdy's thinking said the congressman believes there's no difference between opposing Clinton and backing Trump in what had become, effectively, a two-person race. The source added that Gowdy "disagrees with the conclusion" that the intelligence agencies got it wrong.
"He believes the debate over whether desiring a negative outcome for Clinton necessarily meant Russia had a preference for candidate Trump is a distinction that doesn't make a difference," the source said.
Gowdy's conclusion is at odds with an overview of the findings of the House's Russia investigation released Monday by the probe's top Republican, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas). Among the findings: Although the committee agrees Russia interfered in the election, the intelligence community failed to adequately back up its claim "with respect to Putin's supposed preference for candidate Trump."
"The conclusion that Putin was trying to help Trump, we don't think that's supported by the underlying data," Conaway said in a phone interview, when asked to elaborate on the committee's finding.
He said Republicans on the committee agreed with "98 percent" of the intelligence agencies' findings, but broke on that central issue. Conaway described a laborious effort to confirm the intelligence community's findings, enshrined in its January 2017 assessment that declared with "high confidence" that "Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government "developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."
In the end, Conaway said, the committee found that the agencies didn't meet the burden to prove that assessment.
GOP lawmakers and aides told POLITICO that the committee report isn't a wholesale refutation of the intelligence committee's findings. Rather, it's a judgment that the evidence simply fell short of proving the Russian government's preference for Trump, even though the evidence indicates animus toward Clinton.
Rep. Tom Rooney emphasized that point on CNN Monday night, suggesting that the evidence of Russia's disdain for Clinton was evident, but not necessarily to support a conclusion that they backed Trump's candidacy. Conaway, too, argues that the discrepancy is an issue of the "analytic tradecraft" that the intelligence agencies used to reach their conclusion.
Other Republicans on the panel agreed that the evidence failed to support the intel agencies' conclusions.
“It is my belief that Russia’s intent was to influence our elections by having the American people distrust the institutions that serve them," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in a statement, when asked whether she supported the report's conclusions. "However, I do not believe this interference swayed the electorate to vote for one candidate or another. "
Rep. Chris Stewart put it even more bluntly.
"The CIA just got it wrong," Stewart said on CNN Monday night, contending that he viewed the raw intelligence the agencies used to their determination. "The CIA just got it wrong, just like they did by the way in the Gulf War when they said there were weapons of mass destruction."
The committee's finding tracks with an exchange that Conaway had publicly with former FBI director James Comey in a March 2017 hearing at the outset of the House's Russia probe. Using a football analogy, Conaway challenged Comey on the FBI's determination that Russia wanted to help Trump.
"I mean the logic is that because he really didn't like president — the candidate Clinton, that he automatically liked Trump. That assessment's based on what?" Conaway wondered.
Comey replied, "Well, it's based on more than that. But part of it is and we're not getting into the details of it here, but part of it is the logic. Whoever the Red Raiders are playing, you want the Red Raiders to win, by definition, you want their opponent to lose."
"I know, but this says that ... you wanted her to lose and wanted him to win. Is that what you were saying?" Conaway responded.
"Right. They're inseparable," Comey said.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that Democrats had hoped to at least find agreement with Republicans on the fundamentals of Russia's scheme to interfere in the 2016 election. But that hope evaporated, he said, with the GOP's decision to break from the intelligence community.
"It had been our hope for some time that even if there were areas of disagreement with the majority, that we could at least come together on a report that validated the findings of the intelligence community," he told reporters at the Capitol. "If this is where the GOP is coming from, it represents to me the completeness of their capitulation to the White House, and that leaves very little common ground."
Democrats issued a 22-page report charging that Republicans abdicated their responsibility to conduct a thorough Russia probe, instead cutting off avenues of investigation and refusing to call dozens of potential witnesses.
"The decision to shut down the investigation before key witnesses could be interviewed and vital documentary evidence obtained will prevent us from fully discharging our duty to the House and to the American people," the Democrats said in their report, which identifies 30 witnesses Democrats wanted to call.