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The Senate’s Russia Investigators Need to Slow Down

The Senate’s Russia Investigators Need to Slow Down

Last week, Politico reported that congressional investigations are ramping up “as lawmakers return from the August recess amid fresh revelations about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.” The news comes shortly after the Chairman of the committee undertaking the most serious investigative effort made a surprising statement — one that got a bit lost amid the steady drumbeat of revelations of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian.

Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), told the New York Times he was “hopeful that we can bring finality to [the investigation] by the end of the year, but I also can’t anticipate anything new that might come up that we don’t know today that would extend it by a month or two months.”

Wrap the Russia investigation up by the end of the year? Is Burr serious about that?

If Burr is really contemplating an investigation that issues its report within the next four to six months, it might mean he’s way ahead of where we — and a lot of other people — have assumed he was. But remember that the SSCI is undertaking an investigation of enormous complexity, and it’s pursuing that investigation with lean staffing that is an example of either a laudable Republican commitment to efficiency in government or, well, under-resourcing of what should be an important congressional priority. Given these handicaps, Burr’s comments likely indicate that the investigation has been scoped too narrowly. The other possibility, of course, is that Burr is deluding himself and that the investigation is reasonably scoped but far less advanced than he imagines and that it will, as a consequence, take far longer.

Whichever is the case, with the investigation’s chairman laying out an ambitious timeline to complete the investigation, now is a good time to ask what the American public should expect the SSCI investigation to produce. That is, what are the questions we want Burr and his committee to answer? What is the work we’re expecting this report to do?

The congressional investigations are proceeding in parallel to the executive branch’s investigation, now overseen by Robert Mueller, and they serve different purposes. The purpose of the executive branch investigation is to determine whether crimes were committed and to identify national security threats that need to be remediated. By contrast, the job of the congressional investigations is to develop facts on which to base legislative actions and, just as importantly, to inform the public about what happened during the 2016 election. It is also, in a classic oversight sense, to satisfy itself that the executive branch is doing its job in countering foreign efforts to interfere with the American electoral process.

In order to accomplish these tasks, it will not suffice for the SSCI report simply to rehash the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the election, which was released in December of 2016. That document already concluded, after all, that the interference did happen, that it was an effort to both injure Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances and advantage Donald Trump’s campaign, and that it was a state action by the Russian government. The committee report should affirm those findings, assuming the committee concurs with them, but those are not the central questions Congress was tasked with addressing.

In announcing the bipartisan investigation, Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner promised more. They set forth to conduct an inquiry that would “include, but [not be] limited to”:

  • A review of the intelligence that informed the Intelligence Community Assessment “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections;”
  • Counterintelligence concerns related to Russia and the 2016 U.S. election, including any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns;
  • Russian cyber activity and other “active measures” directed against the U.S., both as it regards the 2016 election and more broadly.

In other words, even as originally scoped, the investigation contemplated addressing the relationship between Trump’s campaign and this set of Russian operations. It was the very promise of answers on that score that the Republican leadership used to stave off calls for a bipartisan commission or a select committee. For the committee now to fail authoritatively to address that relationship should be unthinkable for its chairman. At a minimum, the SSCI will not have done its job if it leaves significant open questions concerning the broad set of questions discussed under the rubric of “collusion.”

The trouble is that, even addressing those original issues won’t be good enough. Because as Burr acknowledged in his Times interview, the “investigation ha[s] expanded beyond its original scope based on new evidence.” The most obvious example of this is the committee’s delving into the circumstances of Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. Having taken the former FBI director’s public testimony that Trump dismissed him because of the Russian investigation, it just is not credible for the SSCI to release a report that does not substantively address the circumstances of the firing of the person charged with investigating the matters it is looking at. There are other issues too that have arisen since the original jurisdiction was established. A report that does not address them will not be credible either. One that addresses them seriously, however, likely poses a serious challenge to the ambitious timeline Burr is promising.

In our view, a satisfactory congressional report needs to address, at a minimum, the following issues, in addition to those described in the original document. Some of these issues are reasonably understood as specific questions encompassed by the broad issues described in that report. Others, however, are not. Unless and until these questions are addressed, however, L’Affaire Russe will not die but will keep coming back. A report, in other words, needs to, at a minimum, contain:

  • A specific accounting of the allegations of coordination between the Russians and any individuals affiliated with Trump campaign — including Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn. This needs to include a complete accounting of any financial dealings between these individuals and Russian government and Russian entities.
  • A granular account of any financial relationships between the Trump organization, the Trump campaign, or related individuals, and the Russian government or Russian entities.
  • A complete explanation of the meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Manafort, and Jared Kushner with Russian citizens purporting to promise Russian government opposition research on Hillary Clinton and support of the Trump campaign.
  • A full explanation of Kushner’s effort to create a back channel means of communication between the Trump transition and the Russian government for one or more meetings.
  • A full account of the substance of the interaction between Flynn and then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the telephone calls between them — along with what and when President Trump and others in the White House learned about those interactions.
  • A complete account of any other meetings that may have taken place with, or about which the campaign was contacted by, Russian officials or representatives.
  • A complete account of any coordination between Russian representatives and Republican operatives not directly affiliated with the Trump campaign — including the efforts by the late Peter Smith to negotiate the production of Hillary Clinton’s missing emails by people purporting to be Russian hackers.
  • An accounting of the Trump Organization’s ties to Russia and Russian interests over time — and a rigorous assessment of the extent to which such ties give rise to security vulnerabilities.
  • A full account of any disinformation campaigns directed by foreign government and whether any US persons or companies supported such efforts by providing assistance or data for better targeting.
  • An assessment of whether any substantial quantity of foreign money played a role in the 2016 campaign.
  • An assessment of the origins and the validity of the so-called “unmasking” issue — and an authoritative resolution for congressional purposes of the question of whether President Trump was subjected to any improper surveillance, as he has alleged.
  • An assessment of whether Comey was fired in an attempt to impede or prevent proper investigation of any of these issues — and whether Trump’s interactions with him while in office and with other senior intelligence and law enforcement officials were improper efforts to influence the investigation.
  • An account of whether any Russian operations are ongoing on expected in the context of future U.S. election and what steps needs to take place to secure the U.S. electoral process against foreign interference.

This is a lot of work to wrap up in a few months. And if the committee were to issue a partial report with the intention of updating it in the future, that could well cause more harm than good.

If Burr thinks the SSCI staff, as currently constituted, is up to the complete job in the time frame he describes, so be it. We look forward to a timely report. Our own sense, however, is that the investigation could use more staff and will almost certainly need more time that Burr has imagined. If that’s the case, better to face that fact now, rather than to rush a report that is not responsive to the public questions that will, without answers, continue to hang like an albatross around the administration’s neck.

Photo credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images