Schiff: What I Have Learned So Far About Russian Collusion with the Trump Campaign

This article first appeared on Just Security.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif) provided an in-depth interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. But as time has passed, Schiff’s remarks have an added weight.

He is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee—and the presumptive chair of that committee if the 2018 elections flip control of the House to Democrats, a more-likely-than-not prospect after this Tuesday’s election results.

That’s an additional reason for his Republican colleagues to listen ever more closely to his views, and for the country as well.

I. Evidence of Trump Campaign-Russia 'collusion'

Making connections: Manafort’s reaching out to Kremlin-connected oligarchs in exchange for campaign information and Trump Tower meeting

SCHIFF: It’s also been reported in The Washington Post and I can only talk about the public report that Manafort was reaching out to Oleg Deripaska while he was campaign manager, offering information about the campaign he’s running in an effort to collect more of the money from Ukraine that he was laundering.

And this is very significant because you have Manafort reaching out — if these allegations are correct — to the Kremlin essentially by reaching out to oligarchs close to the Kremlin, offering information in exchange for money.

And you have the Kremlin reaching out to Manafort, Kushner and the president’s son at the same time offering information on Hillary Clinton in exchange for help with sanctions. And those communications are running in opposite directions contemporaneously.

Any intelligence agency worth their salt is going to put these things together. And the Russians have very competent intelligence agencies. So it’s one issue about the degree to which these are being orchestrated by Russian intel. It’s another about how aware Russian intel is.

And it’s another in terms of what actions the Russians concluded they would take on the basis of this outreach and this evident willingness passively to accept a meeting, aggressively to seek out a meeting with the object of exchanging information of value, to obtain something of value, so that I think is the significance of the matter for us.

Pattern and timing of Russian approach to Carter Page and George Papadopoulos

SCHIFF: The other thing that I think is very significant is you have Carter Page approached by a professor at a Russian university saying basically, once he’s become a Trump foreign policy adviser or one of them, “We want you to come to Russia. We’ll pay your expenses.” And then whatever meetings he has while he’s there.

Almost simultaneously you have another professor approaching George Papadopoulos, who suddenly has an interest in George Papadopoulos because he is now a foreign policy adviser to the campaign. That professor puts him in touch with other links to the Russian government.

So you have these two efforts in parallel going on with just two of these advisers. You have them both reporting back to the campaign, you have the campaign deceiving the public about their knowledge of these things. So I hardly think that these are coincidental.

GettyImages-684189250 House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) stands next to a photograph of Donald Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the U.S. Capitol May 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

II. Russian operations’ effect on 2016 election

Criticism of CIA Director Pompeo—for false statement on Intelligence Community assessment of effects of Russian interference

SCHIFF: But I do think that the administration has made an effort to conflate two different things to confuse the public.

And sadly we have seen our own CIA director do the same thing and that is the fact that we have seen no evidence that the Russians tampered with the vote count within the machines is not the same thing as saying that the intelligence community has found that there was no effect on the outcome of the election. Those are two very different things.

And of course the intelligence community very explicitly said, “We make no, expressed no opinion on whether this affected the outcome of the election, that’s beyond our scope.”

On whether Russian interference had any effect on the election

AP: Based on what you’ve seen, do you think that the interference had some effect, whether it was the deciding factor or not, that it had some effect on the outcome of the election.

SCHIFF: I think it unquestionably had it, had an influence on the election. It influenced the election by millions and millions of Americans seeing Russian content on social media pushed out by the Kremlin.

It had an effect in that the Russians were dumping emails that forced Hillary Clinton on a daily basis to have to defend herself and the campaign, and it changed the topic of the conversation on the campaign trail.

But again the very best proof that the Trump campaign viewed the Russian interference as influential is the fact that the president used it as a central part of his campaign speeches on a daily basis.

[Note: That last sentence is a reference to an earlier remark Schiff made in the interview: “Certainly Donald Trump felt the Russian interference was very significant because he would trumpet the WikiLeaks disclosures just about every day on the campaign trail I think in total 140 odd times. So there’s certainly one person who thought that what the Russians had produced by way of stolen emails was very significant.”]

III. Status and capacities of Mueller and Congressional investigations

Questions about Mueller’s power to issue a public report (and implicit questioning of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein)

SCHIFF: It may very well be that there are pieces of this puzzle that Bob Muller discovers by virtue of a very capable team that he’s assembled, by virtue of the fact that he has the subpoena power — he doesn’t have to go hat in hand to a Republican chair to get a subpoena the way we do.

And the question is, will that be shared either with the public or with the congressional investigative committees. And neither is particularly clear.

We do know from the memo that Rod Rosenstein wrote justifying the firing of James Comey, which was used as a pretext, that he doesn’t believe that investigators should be talking about even an open or closed investigation.

Bob Mueller works for Rod Rosenstein and so my guess is that the only talking that Bob Mueller is going to be allowed to do about what he finds will be in the form of an indictment or the evidence that’s introduced to trial.

So will we be able to give the country a full picture that has the benefit of what not only we discover but what Bob Mueller discovers?

And that is an open question that concerns me a great deal, because the worst thing we could do, I think, is give a wrong or incomplete picture of the country when there is in fact other evidence that we should share but don’t have possession of.

House Intelligence Committee internally divided on investigating obstruction of justice

SCHIFF: You know we’re certainly investigating anyone and everyone affiliated with the Trump campaign and the interactions they had with the Russians, the degree to which they utilized the ill-gotten gains from the Russians. Now I also think that we ought to be, in our committee, looking at the obstruction of justice issue.

AP: Are you?

SCHIFF: Well, we are, some of us. On the majority side of the aisle they’re not interested in pursuing that. Interestingly, they are interested in pursuing the DNC and all the rest of that, but with respect to whether our investigation and that of Bob Mueller has been obstructed, there are only certain members of our committee that are willing to look at that.

House Intelligence Committee had not even interviewed Papadopoulos

SCHIFF: We did not know that the indictments were coming down or that Papadopoulos had plead to a criminal information. We certainly did know of Papadopoulos and we wanted to interview him and he was very much on our radar screen.

Implicates Speaker Ryan in Nunes-Gowdy Clinton Uranium One “investigations”

AP: Congressman, I wanted to ask you about the return of Devin Nunes, his resurgence and about this joint investigation he is conducting with Trey Gowdy on Clinton and Uranium One, but not specifically on Nunes and Gowdy. I am curious if you think House Speaker Paul Ryan is being a good faith actor here?

SCHIFF: Well I don’t think that you could possibly have the announcement of these new investigations, multi-committee investigations into Uranium One, new investigation into the Hillary Clinton emails and how those investigations were handled without getting the approval of the speaker.

So, no. I think the speaker, ultimately the buck stops with him and whatever he is allowing, he is blessing. In this case what he is blessing is an effort which was I think orchestrated by the White House and its external allies to distract from the Russia probe to basically give content to the president’s Twitter urging that the Republicans investigate his vanquished political rival.

And this is disturbing at many levels. It’s disturbing that the White House would weigh in with the Justice Department as they evidently did to get them to take action, in this case lift a gag order so that an investigation of his political opponent could go forward. That gave them the grist for the mill. And we see this in emerging democracies.

I used to serve on the House Democracy Assistance Commission where we would meet with emerging democracies and we would impress upon them that you do not try to jail your opponent after you win an election. You don’t try to persecute, by distorting the justice system, your vanquished rival. Well, that’s what we see going on.

IV. Facebook, Twitter, Google

Social media companies “noncommittal”/stonewalling on proposal to identify potential Trump-Russia coordination

[Note: The AP itself reported that Schiff said the social media giants were stonewalling in this space, but his exact words appeared more qualified. Perhaps the text of his remarks does not fully indicate the full tone or tenor of his remarks. The AP wrote: “Schiff also had sharp words for Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet — Google’s parent company — who he said were stonewalling investigators about sharing data that could possibly link the Trump campaign to Russian interference.”]

AP: What more do you think could be learned from the tech companies themselves about possible communication, connection, collusion between the campaign and those Russian agents who were trying to influence our country in the ways you described?

SHIFF: … One of the things that the social media companies may be able to help us figure out is, was that targeting in any way sufficiently specific and overlapping that it would be unlikely to happen if the Russians, if this so-called independent expenditure campaign, didn’t have input from Cambridge Analytica or from the campaign itself?

Were the messages so similar that it’s implausible that they could have been done, that that could have been happenstance. Or is this simply a situation where it’s pretty easy to tell what states are in play and what aren’t.

Even a not very sophisticated observer could tell certain states are going to be in play and others not. The Russians didn’t need to get messaging information from the campaign because they could simply look at the ads that the Trump campaign themselves were doing on social media and mimic those.

So I think the companies can help us somewhat. We’re obviously looking at these issues ourselves. I did ask the companies if they would be willing to work together to prepare a joint report to the Congress about what they’ve found.

Because it may very well be that on Facebook they pushed certain content and when people liked their pages, the heart of Texas page, they then became part of the audience for targeting on other social media and in ways that we may not be able to see, both because we don’t have the resources and we don’t have the technical skills they do.

They were noncommittal in terms of whether they’d be willing to do that, but we’re going to continue to press them because I think that would be enormously valuable, quite separate apart from whether they’re able to draw connections between the Trump advertising, which I think is no longer online so it is hard for us to historically go through, and figure out what ads were running and where they were running and how similar were they to the Russian ads and how similar was the targeting. If they can help us with that as well, obviously that would be enormously important.

AP: Are you still in an ongoing discussion with the tech companies?

SCHIFF: Yes.

On role of social media in accomplishing what Russia tries to do: Balkanizing America

SCHIFF: The much tougher questions, though, are much more difficult to regulate. And I think we need to do a lot more oversight before we even figure out is there a regulatory role here.

And that goes to the fact that a lot of the content that was pushed — probably far more significant during the campaign than the paid advertising was the organic content, were the establishment of fake pages that drew lots of followers — the effort to amplify either fake news or amplify real news that was derogatory of only one candidate as a way of influencing the election. How do you get at that?

And then even more broadly, what do we do, if anything, about the fact that the algorithms that are used to capture our attention on these platforms are not ones that are such that the truth or falsity is the top priority of what shows up in our field.

They’re not sorted on that basis. They’re sorted on the basis of what will get us to spend the most time on that platform. Now that may be things that are very divisive or things that get us angry or make us fearful. They also may be things that reinforce the views we already have. …

If they show me things that I do want to read, that reinforce views that I may already have, what does that do in terms of Balkanizing the population? We’re not going to legislate an algorithm.

So what is our role and how much of a role is on the companies to understand the societal impacts of what they do and how they structured their platforms and algorithms they use? Algorithms that are designed to maximize advertising revenue may also be socially destructive. …

One of the questions I asked during the hearing, you know I prefaced by saying this goes well beyond Russia. Russia exploited the fact that divisive news or news that makes you fearful, angry tends to become the most viral. But what about the non-Russia aspect of this?

Quite separate and apart from foreign use of these platforms, we may be dividing ourselves even more because of the way we get our information now.

Ryan Goodman is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16).

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