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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.”
Brexit Party warns MPs trying to block UK leaving EU 'we're coming for your seats'
NIGEL FARAGE’s Brexit Party have warned they will battle to unseat no deal scuppering MPs plotting to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum and stop Britain leaving the EU by deliberately targeting their seats.
Gary Lineker offers to stand as interim Prime Minister to stop 'crooked' Brexit
Frightened kids ask candidates to protect them from school shooters
NEWTON, Iowa — The moments happen all across the country. Tiny faces, peering out from behind their parents, or timidly accepting a microphone as the room falls silent. They make eye contact with a larger-than-life presidential candidate and ask: Can you keep me safe at school? Can you stop the shootings?
The questions from children have become a hallmark of the 2020 presidential campaign, with nearly every candidate facing some version of the same emotional query.
Perhaps Sen. Cory Booker was looking for a softball question when he called on 8-year-old Scout Maloney at a town-hall-event in Nashua, New Hampshire, last month. That isn’t what he got.
“What do you plan to do about school shootings?” Scout asked, telling Booker, D-N.J., that she and her brother are home-schooled in part because their parents fear they could become the victims of gun violence.
Booker told Maloney — and her parents — that he believes his is the strongest plan among the 2020 field to stop mass shootings, saying it would require national licensing and registration of firearms. He also added a personal touch.
“I get very tired, Scout, and I get angry,” he said, “because I’m a person of faith, and I hear these people coming up with thoughts and prayers, but I was taught faith without works is dead.”
In Scout’s case, her parents also attended the event, and encouraged their daughter to ask the question. In some cases, older students are members of advocacy groups, like Every Town for Gun Safety.
In the days after a mass shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus in April, school safety was top of mind for middle school student Milan Underberg, who broke down while questioning Beto O’Rourke when he visited her classroom here in Newton.
“I’m afraid that one day I’ll go to school and I’ll never come out. … I’m sorry,” she said, pausing to collect herself and then continuing through tears. “What actions will you take to protect people like me and my classmates from this happening?”
Sometimes, it is the candidates themselves who are overcome with emotion. That was the case with businessman Andrew Yang last week in Des Moines, Iowa, when a question about one twin watching another get shot on a playground caused him to think about his own young children.
“I have a 6- and 3-year-old boy,” Yang said, choking up. “I was imagining it was one of them that got shot and the other saw it. I can’t do it. I’m so sorry.”
The candidates often respond to the questions with similar policy prescriptions: expanding background checks and “red flag” laws, banning the sale of assault-style weapons or proposing programs to buy them back. But the candidates also reflect much of themselves back at the questioner.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pivoted quickly to policy when children in Ohio and Michigan asked her about shootings. And former Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his first wife and their daughter in a car crash and his eldest son to brain cancer, shared his own experience with grief, and the desire it creates to fight for something better.
“I understand what it’s like to lose a kid,” Biden told a high school student in Iowa last week. “I’ve lost two of them. The fact of the matter is, your generation understands this better than anybody, and that’s why it’s going to change. It’s going to change. You’re the best educated, the most open, the most inclusive generation in American history, and you’ve decided no more. I promise you, I promise you it’s going to change in large part because of you.”
Julia Jester, Kailani Koenig, Marianna Sotomayor, Benjamin Pu and Ali Vitali contributed.
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