Trump phone calls add to lingering questions about Russian interference

Julian E. Barnes, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 21 2020 12:25 AM

Trump phone calls add to lingering questions about Russian interference 1
Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. A Republican-controlled Senate panel that has spent three years investigating Russia’s 2016 election interference and possible ties to the Trump campaign released its final, sprawling report on Tuesday, drawing to a close one of the highest-profile congressional inquiries in recent memory. Erin Schaff, The New York Times/file

WASHINGTON — More than 200 pages into a sprawling, 1,000-page report on Russian election interference, the Senate Intelligence Committee made a startling conclusion endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats: Donald Trump knew of and discussed stolen Democratic emails at critical points late in his 2016 presidential campaign.

The Republican-led committee rejected Trump’s statement to prosecutors investigating Russia’s interference that he did not recall conversations with his longtime friend Roger Stone about the emails, which were later released by WikiLeaks. Senators leveled a blunt assessment: “Despite Trump’s recollection, the committee assesses that Trump did, in fact, speak with Stone about WikiLeaks and with members of his campaign about Stone’s access to WikiLeaks on multiple occasions.”

The senators did not accuse Trump of lying in their report, released Tuesday, the fifth and final volume from a three-year investigation that laid out extensive contacts between Trump advisers and Russians. But the report detailed even more of the president’s conversations with Stone than were previously known, renewing questions about whether Trump was truthful with investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller or misled them, much as prosecutors convinced jurors that Stone himself misled congressional investigators about his efforts to contact WikiLeaks.

The committee’s doubts are significant because the stolen emails were one of the major operations in Russia’s 2016 assault on American democracy, and a central question that remains even after years of intense scrutiny is what the Trump campaign knew, if anything, about the Kremlin’s plans. Stone, a onetime campaign adviser who touted his connections to WikiLeaks to other Trump aides, has maintained that he did not know Russia was behind the stolen emails.

But the Senate report made clear that WikiLeaks, at least, “very likely” knew the emails were coming from Russian intelligence, and that Stone knew about the most critical WikiLeaks release before it happened.

Stone categorically denied that he had ever discussed WikiLeaks with Trump. “The report is rife with inaccuracies,” Stone said in an interview Wednesday. He said he had counted 1,098 mentions of his name in the report and footnotes and was about halfway through reviewing them.

The Intelligence Committee provided new details about conversations between the two men in 2016, including calls in late September and early October as chatter intensified about Russia’s operations and WikiLeaks’ plans. Ultimately, the site released hacked Democratic emails on Oct. 7, 2016, about an hour after the presidential race was upended by The Washington Post’s publication of archived “Access Hollywood” footage of Trump boasting about assaulting women.

Notably, the evidence was enough for senators in the president’s own party to sign off on a report suggesting that he may have stonewalled prosecutors and clearly laid out evidence of cooperation between a high-ranking member of the Trump campaign — its onetime chairman Paul Manafort — and a Russian intelligence officer.

Despite voting to endorse and release the reports, Republicans were reluctant to discuss it publicly. Aides to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the acting chairman of the committee, and Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, his predecessor, who stepped down after the FBI began investigating his stock trades, declined to discuss the issue Wednesday. The six other Republicans on the committee declined to talk or did not respond to requests for comment.

The findings of the Senate report also raised new questions about Trump’s decision last month to commute the sentence of Stone, who was convicted last year of seven felonies in a bid to thwart a separate congressional inquiry that threatened the president. Stone denied that he or his lawyers had ever discussed a pardon or commutation with Trump in return for not speaking against him. “Silence about what? Categorically false,” he said. “I comport with his claim that we did not discuss WikiLeaks because we did not.”

The report also served as a reminder that Mueller did not subpoena Trump, instead accepting written answers from him.

Overall, the Senate report was a bipartisan endorsement of the finding that Russia tried to intervene in 2016 on behalf of Trump’s election and that the campaign welcomed the assistance. It also hinted that Manafort may have known about the Russian efforts to hack Democratic emails and dump them into the public sphere, as it did through WikiLeaks.

The bipartisan Senate report was likely to be the last word from an official government inquiry about Russia’s election sabotage operations. But the Justice Department is scrutinizing its own inquiry into the election interference, and Attorney General William Barr has long publicly criticized the work of national security officials trying in 2016 to understand Russia’s efforts to sway the election in Trump’s favor and any links to his campaign.

On Friday, the prosecutor whom Barr appointed to examine the earlier inquiry, John H. Durham, is expected to interview John O. Brennan, the CIA director in 2016, according to a person familiar with elements of the investigation. Durham has asked witnesses about Brennan’s work on crafting the intelligence assessment that concluded President Vladimir Putin of Russia favored Trump’s election, other people familiar with the inquiry have said.

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, reasserted his comment from a day earlier that the Senate report affirmed the findings of other inquiries that there was “absolutely no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.”

Deere compared the report to Mueller’s findings in claiming exoneration for Trump. While the two reports have broad similarities, and neither exonerated the president, there are important differences.

Both teams of investigators largely worked with the same classified material from the intelligence agencies. Mueller’s team approached it as prosecutors, requiring evidence more in line with what would be usable in a courtroom. In contrast, Senate investigators looked at the material more like intelligence analysts who work with partial information to make conclusions and create a mosaic of the broader picture.

That approach allowed the Senate investigators to draw sharper conclusions than Mueller’s team did — for example, labeling Manafort’s longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik as a Russian intelligence officer.

It also helped enable the Senate committee to include conclusions and material not presented in either the Mueller report or at the trial of Stone, such as an intriguing phone call on Oct. 6, 2016, to Trump.

According to the Senate report, Stone received a call that afternoon from a number belonging to an aide to Trump, who regularly used others’ phones to make calls. The topic of the conversation was not known, Senate investigators wrote, but they noted that Stone was focused on a potential WikiLeaks release.

“Given these facts,” the report said, “it appears quite likely that Stone and Trump spoke about WikiLeaks.”

The committee laid out a range of evidence that Stone was focused on WikiLeaks. He and Trump had spoken a few days earlier, on Sept. 29, also on the aide’s phone. Another campaign aide, Rick Gates, witnessed it and told investigators that the two men discussed WikiLeaks. After that call, Trump told Gates that “more releases of damaging information would be coming.”

From March to November 2016, court records showed, Stone had 39 calls with Trump.

Stone said the Senate conclusion that he had discussed WikiLeaks with the president was based solely on testimony by Gates and Trump’s former lawyer Michael D. Cohen. Stone called their testimony tainted by agreements with prosecutors to answer their questions.

In September, three days before the call with Trump, Stone told Manafort, who had by then left the campaign, that hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman would be leaked.

And after he learned about the release of the damaging “Access Hollywood” tape, Stone, the report said, hoped the release of those emails would be timed to counter it.

On the same day that the tape came out, American intelligence officials announced that the Russian government had “directed the compromise of emails” of Americans and U.S. political organizations.

But that warning, overshadowed by the tape, did not stop the Trump campaign from making use of the WikiLeaks disclosures and minimizing or dismissing the Russian involvement, according to the Senate report.

“The Trump campaign considered the release of these materials to be its ‘October surprise,’” the report said.