WASHINGTON — Senate intelligence committee leaders updated the American people Wednesday on the committee’s investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 US election — and what they plan to do about it.
Senate intelligence chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, held the news conference to provide a progress report on their investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible collusion with associates of President Donald Trump.
“We can certifiably say that no vote totals were affected, that the tallies are accurate, the outcome of the election, based upon the count of votes, they did not in any shape or form that we’ve been able to find, alter that. I want to reiterate something that Mark said. You can’t walk away from this and believe that Russia’s not currently active in trying to create chaos in our election process,” Burr said.
Burr says the committee has interviewed more than 100 witnesses as part of its investigation and that more work still needs to be done.
When asked to summarize what they believe, from their investigation, the Russians attempted during the 2016 election, Warner responded:
“I think there is large consensus that they hacked into political files, released those files, in an effort to influence the election. We think they actively tried to at least test the vulnerabilities of 21 states’ electoral systems. And we feel that they used the social media firms, both in terms of paid advertising and what I believe is more problematic created false accounts and others that would drive interest towards stories or groups and generally those stories and groups were to sew chaos,” Warner said.
Burr and Warner warned states, voters and social media companies about the importance of preventing any future meddling.
Warner said social media companies still had forensic work to do to determine the foreign influence during the campaign.
“We have had incredible access and cooperation by those social media companies that have been in. Some of them have been interviewed twice. At the end of the day, we’ll be prepared to ask the right questions that may answer your questions at the hearing,” said Burr. “”I think if you look from 10,000 feet, the subject matter of the ads seems to have been to create chaos in every group that they could possibly identify in America.”
He says “the issue of collusion is still open.”
Reporters asked Warner and Burr to respond to Pres. Trump’s contention that the meddling and collusion was a ‘hoax’, but they would not.
“I’m going to let you guys quote the president,” Burr said.
The Senate intelligence committee is one of three congressional committees that are probing events related to Russia’s election meddling and potential collusion between Trump’s team and the Russian government, along with the federal investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The Senate panel’s investigation has taken on a two-pronged approach — interviewing intelligence community officials and others to confirm the intelligence community’s election meddling, while at the same time interviewing Trump officials like former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to probe possible collusion with Russian officials.
The question of collusion is not expected to be one of the things the committee is closing the book on yet.
Warner told reporters last month that he doesn’t see how committee’s investigation wraps up by the end of the year because of all the new leads that have emerged from Trump’s associates, such as the June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer and Manafort, Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.
“Normally the way these things wrap up is you start running out of new information. That’s not the case,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat. “We’re months and months into this, and we keep finding plenty of more stuff to look into.”
Here’s a look at the key facets of the Russia investigation:
Russian influence on social media
Russia’s use of social media has become a major focus in both the House and Senate intelligence committee investigations, and the social media companies have been invited to testify before both panels.
Warner is also drafting legislation that would add disclosures to political ads on social media websites.
“It’s clear that Facebook, Google and Twitter must do a better job of disclosing where ads come from, helping us with enforcing the law that prohibits foreign governments from making contributions to political campaigns, which ads essentially are,” said Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, an intel member.
Facebook on Monday provided the congressional committees with the 3,000 Russian-linked election ads, which the social media company discovered from 470 inauthentic accounts.
Facebook said in a statement Tuesday, that “About 1% of the ads used a specific type of Custom Audiences targeting to reach people on Facebook who had visited that advertiser’s website or liked the advertiser’s Page — as well as to reach people who are similar to those audiences. None of the ads used another type of Custom Audiences targeting based on personal information such as email addresses.”
Burr, however, is not among them.
“We don’t release documents. It’s a bad precedent to set for anybody else that would produce documents,” Burr said.
Facebook’s cooperation with the congressional panels has put it in a better place than Twitter, which received a tongue-lashing from Warner after the company briefed Senate intel staffers last week that it had taken action on roughly 200 Russian-linked accounts.
“Their response was frankly inadequate on almost every level,” Warner told reporters.
Kushner email issues
The Senate intelligence committee grew concerned last week over reports that Kushner was using a second, private email address.
Kushner has already appeared for a closed-door interview with the panel, and Burr and Warner wrote to Kushner’s attorney last week saying they were not told of the additional email — and to double check if there were any relevant emails inside the personal account.
Burr told CNN Monday that Kushner’s camp had responded that there were not in fact any new relevant emails.
But Politico reported Monday evening that White House officials were reviewing a third email account associated with Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s private domain, raising new questions.
New Trump associate Russia contacts
The connections between Russian officials and Trump’s associates continue to be revealed as the congressional and special counsel investigations march on.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen exchanged emails about attending an economic conference in Russia, and he received a 2015 proposal for a Moscow residential project, according to newly disclosed emails turned over to investigators. He did not attend the conference or pursue the residential proposal, according to the Post.
Cohen also reached out to the Kremlin for assistance in another project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow in early 2016.
Cohen will testify publicly before the Senate intelligence committee later this month, after his closed-door interview was canceled in response to a statement he issued to the media denying any collusion with the Russian government.
Alan Garten, general counsel for the Trump Organization, said in a statement that the newly disclosed Moscow proposal needed to be understood “in context.”
“Like any other international real estate brand, it is not uncommon for third party developers to submit proposals for potential real estate projects all over the world,” he said, adding that only a “very small percentage of these proposals are ever pursued.”
More Russia developments
Russia’s election hacking remains a thorny problem for Congress and the Trump administration, particularly as it looks ahead to the next election cycle.
The Department of Homeland Security has said that Russian hackers tried to breach state election systems in 21 states, and last month they informed the states that were targeted. New reports also keep emerging about the ways that hacking the US government could have occurred.
Reuters reported on Monday that Hewlett Packard Enterprise allowed a Russian defense agency to review the source code of cyber defense software used by the Pentagon to guard its computer networks, citing Russian regulatory documents.
HPE said it allows Russian government-accredited testing companies to review the source code in order to secure certifications needed to sell products to Russia’s public sector, and the reviews are conducted in a manner to ensure the source code is not compromised, according to Reuters. No “backdoor vulnerabilities” were discovered in the company’s Russian review.