House Republicans are privately venting that they’ve fumbled the release of their own Russia probe report.
The blaring headline the GOP wanted from this week’s rollout was clear: After a year of searching, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee found no evidence that Trump or his associates aided Moscow’s scheme to interfere in the 2016 election but that the nation must still prepare for another assault from the Kremlin.
Instead, much of the focus has been on lawmakers’ startling conclusion that the nation's intelligence agencies botched their analysis when they determined Russia wanted Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton.
The finding once again pitted the committee's Republicans against the leaders of the intelligence community and led to a frenzy of news coverage that put members on the defensive. And rather than seizing an opportunity to highlight the Russian threat and undermine lingering questions about the Trump campaign's Russian contacts, Republicans faced a political headache of their own making.
The muddled messaging was the subject of a closed-door meeting of committee Republicans on Wednesday. According to three sources briefed on the discussion, a frustrated Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) raised pointed concerns about why critiquing intelligence agencies was even mentioned at Monday’s rollout. The finding, after all, won't be included in the committee's official Russia report — it will be the subject of a second report issued later in the spring. But the decision to link it to the committee’s Russia findings scrambled the release.
Speaker Paul Ryan’s office also felt compelled to intervene as Republicans offered increasingly scattershot responses in interviews, with some more eager to criticize the agencies than others.
Ryan’s aides convened a meeting with members of the Intelligence Committee's communications staff on Tuesday, according to two sources familiar with the gathering. The message: Make sure your bosses stick to facts about the intelligence agencies' findings — and stay focused on the broader point that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and must be stopped from doing it again.
Ryan's office declined to comment on the meeting.
The trouble began Monday evening, when Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the House Intelligence Committee's lead Russia investigator, rolled out an overview of the committee's findings from its year-long Russia probe. Conaway had been leading the effort since last April, when the committee's chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), stepped aside amid an ethics complaint. (The complaint was dismissed in December.)
In addition to determining that the Trump campaign made no attempt to cooperate or conspire with the Russians, the committee faulted the Obama administration's handling of the Russian operation, accused Russia of "a pattern" of attacks on American allies in Europe and described leaks from senior intelligence community officials to reporters.
But those conclusions were quickly overshadowed by Conaway's indication that the committee wouldn't support the intelligence community's unanimous "high confidence" finding that Russia favored a Trump victory in the election. The FBI, CIA and NSA have stood by this finding repeatedly over the last 14 months, even after Trump's appointees took the helm.
Conaway said an exhaustive review by the panel found that the agencies failed to apply proper "tradecraft" to their decision.
"There are standards that CIA analysts, and other intelligence analysts, hold themselves to," Conaway said. "Ninety-eight percent of the tradecraft was just fine, but we believe that on this one narrow piece of the [agencies' findings], the standards were not upheld.”
The comments sent shockwaves across the Capitol. Democrats erupted, calling it a partisan attempt to shield Trump from the professional conclusions of intelligence analysts.
But it also provoked sharp divisions among Republicans on the committee, who described starkly different interpretations of what the intelligence agencies got right or wrong.
"I didn't think the evidence was strong enough. There was no doubt [Russian actors] were hurting Hillary, but also as soon as the election was over they started organizing demonstrations against Trump," Rep. Peter King told POLITICO. "I didn't find anything that said they thought Trump would be better for them."
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said the CIA simply flubbed it. "The CIA just got it wrong," he said on CNN.
"I don't know what Vladimir Putin's opinion was," said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a former CIA operative, in a Fox News interview. "The intelligence that was used to make that assessment was substandard and it went through a very atypical process."
But a handful of GOP committee members signaled discomfort with challenging the intelligence agencies' findings.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) issued a statement declaring the agencies more or less hit the mark. The Russians despised Clinton and worked to undermine her chances, a view Gowdy considers synonymous with a preference for a Trump victory, according to a source familiar with his thinking.
At least three other GOP lawmakers on the committee publicly and privately backed Gowdy's interpretation and have voiced discomfort with the committee's conclusions.
"Rep. Stefanik shares Chairman Gowdy's concerns," said a spokesman for New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik. "She has seen evidence of Russia actively working to hurt the Clinton campaign in 2016."
An aide to another GOP member of the committee, who requested anonymity, said his boss had also raised private concerns about the interpretation of the intelligence community's findings.
Conaway has emphasized since Monday that the committee has made no determination about whether the intelligence community was right or wrong in its assessment, only that the underlying evidence failed to back up its conclusion. Conaway has also made clear he believes Russia did attempt to hurt Clinton's chances — and he says it's a judgment call whether that means they also wanted Trump to win.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) downplayed the debate as largely a semantic issue and criticized the media for focusing on it above other aspects of the report. Most members agree that the Russian government acted to harm Clinton's candidacy, he said.
"Clearly there’s a lot of evidence showing that they didn’t prefer Hillary," he said. Whether there's enough evidence to conclude the Russians supported Trump, he said, is a different story.
"We don’t have a recording of Vladimir Putin saying 'I like Trump,'" he said. "To look at the evidence and see that they were clearly not rooting for Hillary... a reasonable person would ascertain that they were therefore helping Trump. I think there’s a difference between helping and preferring."
"I think," he said, "Vladimir Putin just wanted us to be bruised."