U.S. Senate committee concludes Russia used Manafort, WikiLeaks to boost Trump in 2016

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia used Republican political operative Paul Manafort, the WikiLeaks website and others to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help now-U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign, a Senate intelligence panel report said on Tuesday.

WikiLeaks played a key role in Russia’s effort to assist Republican Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton and likely knew it was helping Russian intelligence, said the report, which is likely to be the most definitive public account of the 2016 election controversy.

The report found President Vladimir Putin personally directed the Russian efforts to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Clinton.

The panel, formally called the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also alleged Manafort collaborated with Russians, including oligarch Oleg Deripaska and an alleged Russian intelligence operative, Konstantin Kilimnik, before during and after the election.

The panel found Manafort’s role and proximity to Trump created opportunities for Russian intelligence, saying his “high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services… represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

It was not clear what effect, if any, the report might have on the current U.S. presidential campaign in which Trump faces Democrat Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

Opinion polls show former vice president Biden has built an expansive lead in nearly every battleground state that Trump won narrowly in 2016, as the Republican’s approval numbers tumble amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia’s alleged election interference, which Moscow denies, sparked a two-year-long U.S. investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller found no conclusive evidence of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign in a report released last year. He pointed at 10 instances in which Trump may have attempted to impede his investigation but did not say whether this amounted to obstruction of justice.

Trump and his supporters have consistently bristled at suggestions foreign interference helped his upset 2016 victory and sought to discredit the intelligence agencies’ findings as the politically charged work of a “deep state.”

Founded by Julian Assange, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign and a top campaign aide in the weeks before the 2016 election, yielding a drum beat of negative coverage about the Democrat.

“WikiLeaks actively sought, and played, a key role in the Russian campaign and very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort, the report said, saying the panel found “significant indications that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have benefited from Russian government support.”

As Russian military intelligence and WikiLeaks released the hacked documents, the report said Trump’s campaign sought advance notice, devised messaging strategies to amplify them “and encouraged further theft of information and … leaks.”

“The Trump campaign publicly undermined the attribution of the hack-and-leak campaign to Russia and was indifferent to whether it and WikiLeaks were furthering a Russian election interference effort,” the report added.

The committee could not establish the extent to which Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone had real inside access to WikiLeaks materials, the report said.

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