Probe of Trump-Russia ties turns into GOP rally cry

How a probe of Trump-Russia ties turned into a Republican Party rally cry

President Donald Trump speaks to supporters as he's joined on stage by a group of Minnesota Republicans during a rally at the Bemidji Regional Airport. Credit: AFP Photo

In 2016, Donald Trump's campaign chairman shared polling data with an associate suspected of ties to Russian intelligence.

Another Trump associate sought inside information about Democratic emails stolen by Kremlin operatives.

The candidate himself invited Russia to hunt for his opponent's emails, then tried to stifle investigators once he entered the White House.

These were among the findings of the special counsel investigation of ties between Russia and Trump's 2016 campaign.

It produced a trove of damaging, or at least embarrassing, information about Trump.

Yet in the 2020 campaign, Democrats are largely ignoring the Russia probe. It's Republicans who are making it a top campaign issue.

Trump and his supporters have cast the investigation as a witch hunt.

It's a refrain in Trump tweets and speeches and on conservative media.

In the run-up to the election, Trump-appointed officials are ordering the declassification of documents that Trump hopes will boost his campaign.

While some of the revelations from the steady drip of newly declassified documents are serious, they do not undercut the reasons the Russia probe was launched or its principal findings.

An inspector general and a bipartisan Senate panel have both concluded that the probe was valid.

The FBI opened “Crossfire Hurricane” on July 31, 2016, after learning a Trump campaign aide may have had advance knowledge that Russian intelligence operatives had stolen Democratic emails.

A diplomat revealed that the aide, George Papadopoulos, had boasted to him that he had heard Russia had damaging information on Democrat Hillary Clinton that it could release to harm her campaign.

That May 2016 conversation triggered alarms within the FBI since the Russian hacking operation, which resulted in the public disclosure of thousands of hacked emails, was not yet public knowledge.

The investigation was taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller, whose team documented substantial contacts between Trump associates and Russia.

That included a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer that Trump's oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., took with the expectation of receiving dirt on Clinton, and a campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who shared internal polling data with a contact whom a Senate Intelligence committee report characterized as a Russian intelligence officer.

A separate Justice Department inspector general report found the investigation was opened for a valid reason and did not find evidence of partisan bias.

The Senate committee's report found Manafort's Russian contacts posed a “grave” counterintelligence risk.

He was not criminally charged, but he wasn't vindicated.

It is true Mueller said his investigation did not find sufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump, or his associates, and Russia to sway the election.

But the investigation also described broad Russian interference as well as a campaign that was eager to receive the help and expected to benefit from it.

Mueller also investigated multiple episodes in which he found efforts by Trump to exert control of the investigation, including by firing his FBI director, but did not push forward with obstruction of justice charges, citing Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president.

Most focus on one strand: the FBI's suspicion that former campaign adviser Carter Page was a Russian agent.

Page has denied that and was not charged with any wrongdoing.

The inspector general identified major errors and omissions in applications the FBI submitted to a secretive court for permission to eavesdrop on Page.

For instance, the FBI failed to update the court as it received new information that undercut its original premise about Page.

It also highlighted how the warrant applications relied in part on Democratic-funded research conducted by former British spy Christopher Steele.