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On Defense Over Russia, Trump Could Get Another Boost From House Intel Panel

House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., leaves the committee's secure meeting rooms at the U.S. Capitol on February 6, 2018, followed by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., leaves the committee's secure meeting rooms at the U.S. Capitol on February 6, 2018, followed by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

The White House could look for another political booster shot on Thursday if its allies on the House intelligence committee give more detail about how they cleared President Trump's campaign of colluding with Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election.

Intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is poised to release more details from the classified report in which Republicans conclude there is no evidence Trump or his aides conspired with the wave of Russian "active measures" that continue to be directed against the West.

Intelligence committee members are scheduled to meet behind closed doors on Thursday to review the final version of the Republicans' report and then set in motion the process by which the intelligence community is likely to declassify it.

The committee's GOP majority could release unclassified sections of the document. Nunes has previewed the findings once already and Trump hailed the clean bill of health he got from the panel's Republicans.

The president could tout the panel's findings once more on Thursday amid a week that has underscored how difficult it has been for him to shake allegations he may have a secret relationship with powerful Russians or be subject to some kind of clandestine influence.

The latest flare-up is over Trump's phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has begun a new term after an election not considered free or fair. Trump offered Putin "congratulations" and did not broach the issue of Russia's interference in U.S. elections or Russia's poisoning attack against two people in the United Kingdom.

Trump's advisers recommended that he not congratulate Putin, according to the Washington Post, but he did it anyway. White House officials made clear the leak of that detail enraged Trump and that whoever was responsible could be fired or even prosecuted.

Trump's geniality with Putin followed an earlier data point for critics who argue there's something going on behind the scenes.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to fault Russia for what is considered its sham election that reinstalled Putin. Opponents called that a major break with past practices by the United States to advocate for freedom and democracy.

"Does the president of the United States even agree with the message that political and economic freedom are things that we are supposed to promote?" asked Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Other critics went even further. The Russians "may have something on him personally," former CIA Director John Brennan said of Trump on MSNBC.

The comments may have been a reference to the thesis of the infamous, unverified dossier about Trump compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele during the 2016 campaign. NPR has not detailed the material in the dossier but generally it describes a concerted effort by Russian leaders and the Trump campaign to align their efforts.

The American political research operative who commissioned the dossier, Glenn Simpson, told members of Congress that Steele believed Trump was being blackmailed, which is why Steele sought to give the material in the dossier to the FBI.

Republicans point out that Steele and Simpson aren't neutral actors; although Steele couldn't vote in the U.S. election, he told American officials he personally opposed Trump. And Simpson hired Steele and did other work as part of a political operation using Democratic money.

The provenance and reliability of the dossier have become one of the hottest points of controversy in the Russia imbroglio.The Democratic minority on the House intelligence committee said in a memo last month the FBI has verified some of the things it contains, but those details are classified.

If Republicans release more on Thursday from their report about the attack on the 2016 election, that will give them and the White House another opening to respond and debunk Steele's dossier.

More broadly, Trump and Sanders scoff at the accusations about being too close to Putin or the United States generally being soft on Russia.

They and other administration officials point out the range of areas in which Washington is trying to check Russia around the world — from the government in Venezuela to the supply of anti-tank weapons to anti-Russian forces in Ukraine.

The United States and Russia must talk with each other, as Trump and Putin did, Sanders said — but the president is acting in America's interests.

"We're going to continue to do that, while also continuing to be tough on a number of things, including sanctions on Russia, rebuilding our own military, and exporting energy — things that we know are not great for Russia," Sanders said.

Trump followed up with his own defense of sustaining ties with the Russians.

The women

The timing of House intelligence committee Republicans' update on Thursday is important for another reason: Three women are in the headlines this week as they pursue lawsuits related to what they call past sexual contact with Trump, both wanted and unwanted.

Two women — pornographic actress Stormy Daniels and onetime Playboy model Karen McDougal — say they had consensual relationships with Trump more than 10 years ago. The third, Summer Zervos, accuses Trump of kissing her and touching her without her consent. Trump denies the allegations.

McDougal and Daniels both have TV interviews scheduled over the coming week; McDougal on Thursday evening and Daniels on Sunday.

The unverified Steele dossier also contains lascivious allegations about Trump. NPR has not detailed them but they became notorious after BuzzFeed News posted an unexpurgated copy of the dossier online in early 2017.

So the degree to which House Republicans' update on Thursday might seek to debunk the salacious Steele allegations could provide new ammunition as the White House defends itself against charges from the three women now in the public eye.

Trump v. the special counsel

The White House has been on offense against the Justice Department and its special counsel, Robert Mueller, since the firing last week of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

Trump and his allies have pointed to McCabe's dismissal as evidence that what they call "biased" investigators and attorneys are conspiring against the president out of partisan animus.

That has led to concerns from Democrats that the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions might make Mueller their next target. Senate intelligence committee ranking member Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and others want their colleagues in Congress to pass legislation explicitly protecting Mueller.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., don't agree. Both said on Tuesday all the other goings-on with McCabe and the Justice Department aren't connected to Mueller.

They also said they have no doubt that Mueller would be able to stay in his job and accordingly no law is needed to bar Trump from firing the special counsel without cause.

"The special counsel should be free to follow through his investigation to its completion without interference, absolutely," Ryan said. "I am confident that he'll be able to do that. I have received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration."

But no handshake agreement between Trump and Republican leaders would stop any attempt by the president to shake up the Justice Department or get rid of Mueller before Congress could respond — for example, with impeachment proceedings. The only recourse would be congressional action afterward.

That prompted one of Trump's Republican antagonists, retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, to urge the president not to "go there."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.