(CNN)The Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation was nearly over before it began.
On January 12, 2017, eight days before President-elect Donald Trump was sworn into office, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr told reporters his committee would not look into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “That’s not our role,” the North Carolina Republican said. Sen. Mark Warner, the panel’s top Democrat, was furious, and the Virginia Democrat rallied the panel’s Democrats to threaten to walk away from the investigation. But after Burr and Warner had a frank conversation, sources familiar with the matter said, the senators issued a joint statement 24 hours later walking back Burr’s statement.The Senate just dropped a massive Russia bombshell (and most people missed it)It was the first of many disagreements Burr and Warner would work through over the course of the committee’s three-and-a-half-year investigation, which culminated last week in the release of a massive report providing the most detailed look to date at the extensive nexus between Trump associates and Russian officials during and after the 2016 election.Read MoreFrom issuing a subpoena to the President’s son to a leak of politically sensitive text messages, there were plenty of chances for the investigation’s bipartisan cooperation to have crumbled. But every time, Burr and Warner hashed out their issues and kept the committee on track.”It could have all gone off the rails if we’d had different leadership,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “There was a lot of give and take, a lot of times it was hard — they deserve the lion’s share of the credit.”The Senate Intelligence Committee was one of several congressional panels that scrutinized the Trump campaign and Russia beginning in 2017, but it was the only one that managed to complete its investigation with Democrats and Republicans still on the same page. The House Intelligence Committee’s probe quickly devolved into a partisan firefight that still reverberates today, while the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t go far beyond interviewing the participants of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting.There were several key differences with the Senate Intelligence Committee probe. The interviews were conducted by bipartisan Senate staff, rather than lawmakers like the other congressional panels, which cut down on — but did not eliminate — leaks from the depositions. The two staff directors, Chris Joyner and Mike Casey, kept an open dialogue, just like their bosses. Disputes were almost always resolved internally, and not by “going straight to the podium.””It was just a matter of keeping our heads down and slogging through it, and committing to recognizing there were going to be differences,” said one source familiar with the investigation, who like several others, requested anonymity to speak candidly about the probe.Beyond Mueller In many ways, the Senate report went farther than the report released last year by former special counsel Robert Mueller. Lawmakers cast a wider investigative net than Mueller did, and pierced deeper into some of the unsolved mysteries, providing at least some finality for those who have followed the Russia story since 2016. The numbers tell the story: Volume I of Mueller’s report, which detailed possible Trump-Russia coordination, was 207 pages. The Senate report on the same topic was a whopping 966 pages.One question that was finally answered surrounded Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Russian colleague of Paul Manafort, who stayed in touch while Manafort ran the Trump campaign and even received internal polling data from Manafort. The Mueller report said Kilimnik had “ties to Russian intelligence,” but the Senate report went all the way, outing him as a full-blown “Russian intelligence officer.”READ: Senate Intelligence panel's fifth volume of Russia investigation reportThe committee also drew conclusions that Mueller declined to make. They said it was “implausible” Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos never told the campaign about his advance knowledge of Russian email hacks against Democrats, even though he told diplomats from at least two foreign governments. Papadopoulos and other campaign officials told Mueller they couldn’t remember it ever coming up — and Mueller basically left it at that.Mueller also hit roadblocks in his efforts to secure testimony from some key players. But lawmakers interviewed Donald Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who met with Trump Jr., Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner at Trump Tower in June 2016.The two investigations had different objectives. Mueller led a criminal investigation under the tutelage of the Justice Department, with regulations controlling everything from how to obtain a search warrant to how to discuss an uncharged individual in a public report. The Senate had broader latitude to set its own agenda and was on a more straightforward fact-finding mission.But that also was one key reason why the committee’s investigation took so long to complete. The panel realized that they would have to wait for Mueller to finish in order to get access to key witnesses for the Senate probe — and even then, the panel had a lengthy fight with the Justice Department to gain access to FBI and special counsel documents, sources said.When the committee considered granting immunity to secure testimony of several witnesses, including Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the Justice Department objected, saying the action could harm the special counsel investigation, which had secured guilty pleas from both. The committee held a vote in March 2019 over whether to do so anyway, in what was a rare partisan split over how to proceed with the probe. The vote, which needed a supermajority, failed with most Democrats opposed.A relationship is quickly testedBurr became Intelligence chairman in 2015 following the retirement of Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican. Two years later, Warner became the panel’s top Democrat, with the title of vice chairman, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced in December 2016 the panel would investigate Russian election interference for the Senate.Importantly, Burr and Warner already had an established a relationship — in part because of Chambliss, who was close to both senators and organized social dinners and gatherings the pair had attended.Soon after the investigation got underway in 2017, Chambliss held a dinner with Burr and Warner, where he offered some advice.”The Russia investigation was just boiling up at that time, and the conversation was about the fact that look, whatever y’all do collectively, you just got to make sure at the end of the day, you put out a report that both of you can sign,” Chambliss said in an interview. “They were very clear with each other that that was their goal.”There were quickly bumps in the road. Democrats’ concerns about Burr following his initial comments on the investigation’s scope were exacerbated following a report the White House had connected Burr with reporters to try to rebut stories about Russian contacts with the Trump campaign.Senate intelligence report warns of repeat of Russian interference in US electionThe dust-up eventually smoothed over, but it took several months before Burr and Warner were comfortable that the investigation was on solid footing. Trump’s May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey added to Burr’s sense of urgency to pursue the probe, sources said, and the committee landed Comey’s blockbuster public testimony a month later.While Comey’s firing was a key datapoint, at that point the committee was already on Manafort’s trail, said one source, realizing early into the investigation there was plenty to uncover related to Trump’s former campaign chairman.”The investigation started to drive itself, and there was broad bipartisan agreement about the lines that we need to pursue,” said one source.The Intelligence Committee — with a membership running the gamut from moderates like King and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to liberal Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and conservative Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — was no stranger to controversial investigations. Its years-long probe into the George W. Bush administration’s CIA detention and interrogation program was completed only by Democrats, and Collins was the lone Republican to vote to release a declassified summary.In 2017, the committee was a long way from avoiding the same outcome with the Russia probe.Political pressure from all sidesAs a steady stream of high-profile Obama administration and Trump administration officials testified before the committee into 2017 — some entering and exiting without detection, others appearing before a throng of television cameras — Republicans began publicly urging Burr to wrap it up.Trump himself told Burr, McConnell and other Republicans to end the investigation during the summer of 2017, The New York Times reported several months later. Burr said his goal was to finish the investigation by the end of the year, one of many self-imposed deadlines he would state publicly that the committee would ultimately blow past.The external push to wrap up the probe was one of several instances where Burr and Warner faced political pressure over the investigation but stuck together.In early 2018, Warner found himself facing questions about text messages he’d sent to an associate of a Russian oligarch with ties to Christopher Steele, the author of the opposition research dossier on Trump and Russia. Warner was trying to arrange an interview with Steele through the associate, Adam Waldman, who had turned the texts over to the committee as part of its investigation.It could have been an embarrassing episode for Warner, after the texts were leaked to Fox News. Instead, Burr backed up the Virginia Democrat, saying he was aware of the contacts and Warner had explained the conversations to the committee. What’s more, Burr and Warner jointly confronted the House Intelligence Committee Republicans over the leak of the texts. Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who would play a surprise role this year releasing the report as acting chairman, also publicly backed up Warner.The committee ultimately obtained written responses from Steele but no interview, and the investigation offered a critical look at the dossier and the FBI’s handling of it.As the investigation slipped into 2019, Mueller was wrapping up, but the committee plodded forward — in part because the panel’s investigators felt they needed to follow up with key witnesses like Kushner and Trump Jr.Kushner returned voluntarily, but Trump Jr. rebuffed their efforts, leading to the committee’s remarkable bipartisan step to subpoena the President’s son.The subpoena soon leaked, sparking a swift backlash against Burr from the President’s allies — and even some Republican members of the committee. “If there’s one thing that I do hear from North Carolina voters it’s: ‘It’s time to move on,'” then-North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Meadows told CNN at the time. Of course, Burr didn’t have to worry about a backlash from North Carolina voters — or being on the receiving end of a Trump Twitter attack — because he’d already said he wasn’t running for reelection after he narrowly won in 2016. Burr didn’t back down, and Trump Jr. ultimately testified for a second time.That wasn’t the end of it. The Intelligence panel sent referrals to the Justice Department stating that Trump Jr., Kushner and Steve Bannon, among others, may have misled the committee, according to a source familiar with the matter. It does not appear DOJ acted on the referrals. Addressing the collusion questionWhile the committee marched forward with its investigation as Mueller wrapped up, Burr and Warner struggled to explain publicly how they were going to reach a consensus on the question of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, a rare source of public disagreement between the two.Trump had even seized on Burr’s comments that the panel hadn’t found collusion, while Warner said he disagreed with the chairman.Ultimately, the committee resolved its collusion conundrum by simply not addressing it — the word isn’t found in the body of the committee’s latest 966-page report, the fifth and final volume from its investigation, which altogether totals more than 1,300 pages. “It was sort of always known that the only way to reach a bipartisan conclusion was to draft it this way,” said one source.So the committee stuck to the facts, and left it to others to draw conclusions. And they did so: A bloc of Republicans on the panel submitted “additional views” to the end of the report declaring, “We can now say with no doubt, there was no collusion.”A group of the panel’s Democrats took the opposite position, writing of Manafort’s campaign-era coordination with Kilimnik, the Russian spy, “This is what collusion looks like.”But both sides accepted the report itself, which passed by voice vote with one dissension, GOP Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho.Risch said in a statement that the investigation “found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. The facts presented in Volume 5 make this conclusion abundantly clear, however I voted against the report because it fails to explicitly state this critical finding.”King, who did not join the Democrats’ additional views, said that “the feeling was, if we were going to avoid a partisan train wreck, the way to do it was to simply state the facts and let people make their own decisions and draw their own conclusions.”Getting the report out the doorSources familiar with the investigation say the final volume of the report was released as quickly as the committee could finish it. There were delays due to fights with the Executive Branch over documents, and the committee staff was slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic, too.Then there was one more twist that threatened to throw the investigation sideways. In March, the FBI began investigating stock trades Burr had made at the start of the pandemic. When the FBI issued a search warrant for Burr’s Senate phone in May, he announced he was stepping aside as Intelligence Committee chairman while the investigation continued, with Rubio named acting chairman.Burr’s final action before stepping down was to send the report to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for redactions, the last step before it could be released publicly.While Rubio could have found ways to delay the release of the report, sources said he pushed ODNI to work through the document so it could be released publicly. After some back and forth over redactions to the public version of the report, it was released to the public on Tuesday, three years and nine months after the investigation began. It was also dropped right in the middle of the 2020 presidential campaign’s political conventions — along with a warning that Russia’s meddling continues into the 2020 election.
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