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From the GOP with love -- Trump gets gift from Russia panel

Updated 8:00 AM ET, Tue March 13, 2018

(CNN) - Donald Trump's friends on Capitol Hill have delivered.

The President is now wielding a powerful new weapon in his war of credibility with America's spy agencies over their view that Russia helped put him in the White House, after House Republicans suddenly shuttered their probe into election meddling.


The committee stunned Washington most by taking direct aim at the assessment by US spy chiefs that President Vladimir Putin engineered the Russian election meddling operation specifically to hurt Hillary Clinton and benefit Trump.

That finding squares with Trump's view that the Russia story is nothing but a hoax and a witch hunt designed by Clinton sympathizers to explain the Democratic nominee's shock election defeat in 2016.

Trump supporters are certain to use the finding, issued with the imprimatur of a House committee, to argue that it is time for America to move on from the endless recriminations of the election, which have cast an unmovable cloud over Trump's White House.

While Monday's report is clearly a partisan, political document -- committee Democrats were not briefed before its release -- it is all but certain to be used by Trump to discredit intelligence assessments and to proclaim his innocence. But it also comes as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation appears to be accelerating -- and it's unlikely to affect his work.

Findings could reignite calls to dismiss Mueller

Details of the Republican conclusions contradict an account laid out by Mueller of a campaign by Russian entities to disparage Clinton and support Trump, shown in the indictment of 13 Russians issued last month.

With that in mind, the House panel's move may spur calls by Trump allies for the dismissal of Mueller and the further politicization of the entire Russia question, which is fueling doubts that the GOP-led Congress would ever hold the President to account should the special counsel eventually find wrongdoing by him or his campaign team.

"I think this will reignite those who want to take out Mueller after they were undercut in the wake of those indictments," CNN analyst and former CIA and FBI official Phil Mudd said on "The Situation Room" on Monday night.

In the light of recent attacks on Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing his work, mounted a firm defense of the special counsel in an interview with USA Today on Monday.

"The special counsel is not an unguided missile," Rosenstein said. "I don't believe there is any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel."

If nothing else, the release of the committee's conclusions, ahead of a more formal report by the panel, illustrate that Republicans -- in the House at least -- have got Trump's back on Russia. It is not just the House panel that appears to be in Trump's corner. The office of Speaker Paul Ryan on Monday released a series of documents from the probe, suggesting that the most powerful House Republican -- who would have to orchestrate any impeachment proceedings down the road, if it ever came to that -- was fully on board.

Monday's events also enshrine a split between Republicans, in the House at least, and the intelligence community, after decades in which the committees overseeing US clandestine agencies have sought to insulate themselves from politics and to pursue bipartisan oversight.

Damaged credibility

Still, the sweeping nature of the House panel's conclusions, and the blatant contradiction with the intelligence community's findings on the election, could mark an overreach by Republicans on the panel.

Just as with the controversial memo released earlier this year by the committee majority that accused the FBI of abusing surveillance law, the report could damage the credibility of the panel among less partisan observers.

Ever since taking office, Trump has attempted to tarnish the intelligence community's assessment about the election.

In Asia in November, for example, he said that he believed Putin believed that Russia did not interfere in the election -- apparently taking the word of the Kremlin leader over his own intelligence community.

Hours later, he climbed down, saying he did accept the findings of US spy agencies, but he has repeatedly attacked the FBI, which is carrying out the investigation under Mueller's direction.

Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican leading the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation, said his staff had prepared a 150-page report that they would give to the Democrats to review on Tuesday morning.

He said the committee found no evidence of collusion but turned up what could perhaps be called some bad judgment among Trump associates who took meetings with the Russians.

CNN's Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb reported that the Republican document says the investigation shows a "Concurrence with the Intelligence Community Assessment's judgments, except with respect to Putin's supposed preference for candidate Trump."

That conclusion directly contradicts the intelligence community's finding in January 2017 that "the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him."

The CIA and FBI had high confidence in that judgment, while the National Security Agency registered moderate confidence.

James Clapper, who was serving as director for national intelligence in the Obama administration when that report was released, told CNN on Monday that he was not surprised at the GOP conclusion but still backed the assessment by the three US spy agencies.

"I stand on those findings and I think the intelligence community stands on those findings," he said.

"Unfortunately, I can't go into detail at risk of exposing very sensitive sources of tradecraft and accesses," Clapper added. "Given the evidence that we have, which was quite compelling, we had a very high confidence level in those findings."

Democrats outraged

Democrats blasted the leadership of the House Intelligence Committee over the decision to shutter the investigation and release conclusions.

"The majority has placed the interests of protecting the President over protecting the country, and history will judge its actions harshly," said Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee.

The California congressman argued that the committee had failed in its duty to compel testimony from key witnesses and to subpoena documents like phone records, text messages and financial information, meaning that its conclusions lacked the grounding in evidence and procedure that the gravity of the issue merits.

While the House investigation is now over, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has managed to avoid the worst partisan rancor of its House equivalent, is still at work. Another probe is underway in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But the scope of both congressional investigations is likely to be superseded by the resources and the breadth of the Mueller probe, which could be months away from conclusion -- presuming it is allowed to finish its work unhampered.

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