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By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — After two years and 200 interviews, the Senate Intelligence Committee is approaching the end of its investigation into the 2016 election, having uncovered no direct evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.

But investigators disagree along party lines when it comes to the implications of a pattern of contacts they have documented between Trump associates and Russians — contacts that occurred before, during and after Russian intelligence operatives were seeking to help Trump by leaking hacked Democratic emails and attacking his opponent on social media.

“If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week in an interview with CBS News.

Burr was careful to note that more facts may yet be uncovered, but he also made clear that the investigation was nearing an end.

“We know we’re getting to the bottom of the barrel because there’re not new questions that we’re searching for answers to,” Burr said.

Democratic Senate investigators who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity did not dispute Burr’s characterizations, but said they lacked context.

“We were never going find a contract signed in blood saying, ‘Hey Vlad, we’re going to collude,” one Democratic aide said.

The series of contacts between Trump’s associates, his campaign officials, his children and various Russians suggest a campaign willing to accept help from a foreign adversary, the Democrats say.

By many counts, Trump and his associates had more than 100 contacts with Russians before the January 2017 presidential inauguration.

“Donald Trump Jr. made clear in his messages that he was willing to accept help from the Russians,” one Democratic Senate investigator said. “Trump publicly urged the Russians to find Clinton’s missing emails.”

Those facts are beyond dispute. But they also have been known for some time — and have not seemed to change Trump’s political standing.

Democrats and other Trump opponents have long believed that special counsel Robert Mueller and Congressional investigators would unearth new and more explosive evidence of Trump campaign coordination with Russians. Mueller may yet do so, although Justice Department and Congressional sources say they believe that he, too, is close to wrapping up his investigation.

House Republicans announced last year they had found no evidence of collusion, but their report came under immediate criticism as a highly partisan product that excluded Democrats. Now in power, House Democrats recently announced an expanded probe that will go beyond the 2016 election to examine whether any foreign government has undue financial influence on Trump or his family. And New York prosecutors are pursuing their own criminal inquiry related to hush money payments to women. The investigations into Donald Trump, therefore, are far from over.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been conducting the sole bipartisan inquiry, led by Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia. The committee has sifted through some 300,000 documents, investigators tell NBC News, including classified intelligence shedding light on how the Russians communicated about their covert operation to interfere in the 2016 election.

U.S. intelligence agencies assess that the operation began as an effort to sow chaos and morphed into a plan to help Trump win. It included the hacking and leaking of embarrassing Democratic emails and the use of bots, trolls and fake accounts on social media to boost Trump, criticize Democrat Hillary Clinton and exacerbate political differences.

Predictably, Burr’s comments led Trump to tweet that he had been fully vindicated, which is not the case.

“Senator Richard Burr, The Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, just announced that after almost two years, more than two hundred interviews, and thousands of documents, they have found NO COLLUSION BETWEEN TRUMP AND RUSSIA!” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Is anybody really surprised by this?”

Democratic Senate investigators say it may take them six or seven months to craft their final report once they are done with witness interviews. They say they have uncovered facts yet to be made public, and that they hope to make Americans more fully aware of the extent to which the Russians manipulated the U.S. presidential election with the help of some Trump officials, witting or unwitting.

The report, Democrats say, will not be good for Trump.

But they also made clear they haven’t found proof of their worst fear: That the president formed a corrupt pact with Russia to offer sanctions relief or other favorable treatment in return for Russian help in the election.

After it recently emerged that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort shared campaign polling data with a man the FBI says is linked to Russian intelligence, Warner called that the most persuasive evidence yet of coordination.

“This appears as the closest we’ve seen yet to real, live, actual collusion,” he said on CNN.

No evidence has emerged, however, linking the transfer of polling data to Trump. Also unclear in court documents is Manafort’s motive for sharing the information. Facing more than a decade in prison for bank and tax fraud, he has not been accused by Mueller of any crimes related to the 2016 election.

Burr, in the CBS interview, said the motivations behind the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians were in some cases impossible to discern.

“There’s an awful lot of connections of all these people,” he said. “They may not be connections that are tied to 2016 elections in the United States, but just the sheer fact that they have a relationship — it may be business. It may be Russian intelligence. It may be they’re all on the payroll of Oleg Deripaska,” he added, referring to a Russian oligarch tied to Putin who had business dealings with Manafort.

The final Senate report may not reach a conclusion on whether the contacts added up to collusion or coordination with Russia, Burr said.

Democrats told NBC News that’s a distinct possibility.

“What I’m telling you is that I’m going to present, as best we can, the facts to you and to the American people,” Burr told CBS. “And you’ll have to draw your own conclusion as to whether you think that, by whatever definition, that’s collusion.”



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Trump campaign won’t commit to staying away from hacked material

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By Monica Alba

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is refusing to publicly state that it will not use hacked materials to its advantage — in glaring contrast with the Democratic National Committee and a long list of the party’s 2020 candidates who have pledged not to do so.

The investigation into Russian election meddling by special counsel Robert Mueller found that the Russian government not only interfered in the 2016 race in “sweeping and systematic fashion,” but it also made helping Trump win a priority.

Mueller’s report, made public last week, said that while investigators had found no criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Russians, the Trump team expected to “benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”

In February, the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls all declared they would not take advantage of illegally obtained information. Most of those campaigns (including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey; Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Kamala Harris of California; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro) have confirmed to NBC News that their positions remain unchanged.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke — who hadn’t formally announced in February — have also committed to not using stolen or hacked information.

In February, the Trump campaign chose not to state their position on using such information and, on Wednesday, neither the campaign nor the Republican National Committee responded to repeated requests for comment.

This week, DNC Chairman Tom Perez asked his counterpart at the RNC, Ronna McDaniel, to commit to the same cybersecurity platform heading into 2020.

“As the leaders of our country’s two largest political parties, we have a responsibility to protect the integrity of our democratic process,” he wrote. “That’s why I urge you to join me in condemning the weaponization of stolen private data in our electoral process.”

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about future use of such material, but when asked about denouncing future Russian interference, spokesman Hogan Gidley pointed to the president’s past statements. Trump has not pledged to stay away from using any kind of hacked or stolen data in the coming cycle.

Notably, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani recently maintained that there was “nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.”

Vice President Mike Pence did not directly respond to a question from NBC News Wednesday about whether he regretted the campaign’s use of hacked emails in 2016 and whether he would pledge not to do so again, repeating the administration’s position that the Mueller report found no collusion between the campaign and Russia.

Earlier this week, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner largely dismissed Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election as “buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent.”

“Quite frankly, the whole thing’s just a big distraction for the country,” the president’s son-in-law argued. “It’s a terrible thing but I think the investigations and all the speculation that happened for the past two years has had a much harsher impact on democracy than a couple Facebook ads.”

Trump and his 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, quickly offered their praise for and agreement with Kushner’s position on Twitter.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is set to join the race on Thursday, has already pledged not to use hacked material. He is the co-chair of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, created to combat election interference domestically and overseas.

In February, at the Munich Security Conference, Biden implored other candidates to vow not to “aid and abet” foreign governments seeking to meddle.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has started her own “Cybersecurity Pledge” and pressed her fellow White House hopefuls to join.

“I pledge not to accept stolen or hacked materials from foreign actors, and I urge all other presidential candidates to do the same,” she wrote online. “Join me in calling on the rest of the 2020 field to help defend our elections from foreign interference.”



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Brexit COMPROMISE? May wants customs union ‘arrangement’ with Labour as talks resume

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THERESA MAY is aiming to strike a compromise with Labour that would make a customs union arrangement with the European Union part of the UK’s future relationship with the bloc.

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‘We are holding Big Pharma accountable’

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By Dartunorro Clark

President Donald Trump on Wednesday vowed to take on pharmaceutical companies in his administration’s pursuit to end the opioid epidemic in America.

“We are holding Big Pharma accountable,” Trump said at the 2019 Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta.I couldn’t care less, they have to do what’s right.”

Trump pointed to the drug-trafficking charges that federal prosecutors in New York filed Tuesday against Rochester Drug Co-Operative, one of the largest distribution companies in the United States, and two of its former chief executives for their sale of prescription opioids — the first major distribution company hit with such charges.

“My administration is also taking aggressive action to reduce oversupply of highly addictive prescription drugs,” Trump said. “The Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 3,000 defendants in cases involving opioids.”

Trump has made the opioid epidemic a top policy priority. In 2017, he declared the epidemic a national emergency and in October signed into law a legislative package that lawmakers and public health experts believe will help curb crisis in the country.

On Wednesday, Trump checked off what he said were his administration’s accomplishments in fighting the opioid epidemic, including stopping drugs at the southern border and expanding access to an overdose-reversing drug called Naloxone.

“We have secured a record $6 billion in new funding to combat the opioid crisis … [and] last year we provided $90 million to prevent youth substance abuse,” Trump said. “Following the recommendation of my surgeon general and many others last year, the distribution of the overdose-reducing drug, Naloxone, increased by over 1 million units. Pretty amazing stuff.”

Trump also touted aggressive efforts at the U.S.-Mexico border to stop the flow of drugs into the country, including his long-promised border wall, which he claimed is under construction. The United States is replacing old fencing at the border.

“We are stopping the drug flow,” Trump said. “Some want to do the right thing, you might be surprised. You can see what’s going on the border, they’re seeing the drugs and human trafficking.”

A 2015 report by the Drug Enforcement Administration noted, however, that a wall would stop illegal drugs from coming into the country since the bulk of drugs crossing the southwest border come through legal ports of entry.

Trump also said Wednesday that he would stop foreign drug companies from “rigging” the system against Americans.

“At long last, we’re stopping the drug companies in foreign countries from rigging the system,” Trump said. “I know all about rigging the system because I had the system rigged on me.”

“I think you know what I’m talking about,” he added, an apparent reference to his repeated criticism of the Russia investigation.

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