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Key Dem senator pushes back against GOP claims on collusion

Richard Burr has said what the White House wants to hear about the Russia scandal, but there are other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Virginia Senator Mark Warner as he addresses an election night rally in Arlington, Va. on Nov. 4, 2014. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)
Virginia Senator Mark Warner as he addresses an election night rally in Arlington, Va. on Nov. 4, 2014.

Last week, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a White House ally, gave CBS News an update on his panel's investigation into the Russia scandal. "If we write a report based upon the facts that we have," the GOP senator said, "then we don't have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia."

For Donald Trump, his allies, and other critics of the scandal, it was effectively a case-closed moment. Indeed, the president has published a series of excited tweets on the subject -- including one this morning -- pointing to Burr's quote as if it were an official finding of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

There are, however, others on the panel, who've seen the same intelligence, and who haven't reached the same conclusion. Yesterday, for example, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was asked about Burr's comments, and he told reporters, "Respectfully, I disagree." NBC News' report added:

Sen. Mark Warner, D.-Va., ranking member of the committee, told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday that he disagrees with the way Burr characterized the evidence about collusion, but he declined to offer his own assessment."I'm not going to get into any conclusions I have," he said, before adding that "there's never been a campaign in American history ... that people affiliated with the campaign had as many ties with Russia as the Trump campaign did."

Given the circumstances -- including the fact that the investigation is ongoing, members are dealing with highly sensitive information, and the committee is still months away from completing its work -- it's not surprising that Warner would be circumspect, especially when speaking with the press.

The Virginia Democrat was, however, willing to make clear that he's seen the same information as Burr, and he's not prepared to endorse Burr's assertion.

What's more, Warner isn't alone on this front. Mother Jones had a related report yesterday, quoting other members of the same intelligence panel.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), for example, was asked about claims that there's no clear evidence of a conspiracy between President Donald Trump and Moscow. "That's not true," the Maine Independent said. "I think it's misleading. The intelligence committee hasn't discussed the matter, let alone released a committee report."

Looking ahead, there's no shortage of related questions to consider. We don't know, for example, what Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team have uncovered, which the Senate Intelligence Committee may or may not have seen. We also don't know what senators and their staffs will find as their investigation continues in the coming months.

For that matter, as Trump, Burr, and their allies focus on the question of "collusion," it's not altogether clear how they're defining the political term. There have already been months of open-source reporting pointing to extensive communications and attempts at cooperation between the Trump campaign and their Russian benefactors during Moscow's attack on American elections -- all of which the Republican operation lied about.

Yes, the GOP chairman of the Intelligence Committee -- who was originally inclined to ignore the controversy, and who later reached out to reporters, downplaying the importance of the Russia scandal, at the White House's behest -- has said what Trump wants to hear about evidence of collusion. But NBC News spoke to Democratic Senate investigators who added that Richard Burr's assessment lacked context.

"We were never going to find a contract signed in blood saying, 'Hey Vlad, we're going to collude,'" one Democratic aide said.

To suggest that such a contract signed in blood is what's necessary to justify the significance of the scandal is a mistake.