Further Revelations on Trump-Russia Ties Build Pressure For Independent Inquiry

New reports rattle the White House, as congressional and FBI investigations gain momentum -- but can institutions survive the stress test?

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23:  U.S. President Donald Trump holds a listening session on health care with truckers and CEOs from the American Trucking Associations in the Cabinet Room at the White House on March 23, 2017 in Washington, DC.. (Photo by Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: U.S. President Donald Trump holds a listening session on health care with truckers and CEOs from the American Trucking Associations in the Cabinet Room at the White House on March 23, 2017 in Washington, DC.. (Photo by Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images)

Just two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, abundant smoke seems to be giving way to the first signs of real fire behind allegations of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 elections.

A steady flow of leaked stories further describing alleged connections between the Kremlin and Trump associates like former campaign manager Paul Manafort — and their apparently starring role in the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s hack of the election — have followed FBI director James Comey’s revelation Monday to Congress that the bureau is investigating possible collusion. That’s a sign that Trump’s war with the intelligence community may be boomeranging as lawmakers dig deeper into a scandal that threatens to derail the new administration and which portends a potential constitutional crisis.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee investigating Trump’s Russia ties, said Wednesday that he’s seen more than “circumstantial evidence” of collusion between the campaign and people close to the Kremlin. “There is evidence that is not circumstantial and is very much worthy of an investigation,” Schiff said.

But the chairman of that panel, Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.), has this week muddied the waters, offering in a confusing press conference Wednesday a semblance of political cover for Trump’s claims to have been surveilled by the previous administration. In a break with committee decorum, Schiff questioned whether Nunes was acting as a White House surrogate while at the same time purporting to lead an investigation targeting the Trump administration and its allies.

That infighting has plenty of lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, questioning the ability of Congress to take the investigation across the finish line, and redoubled calls for a special prosecutor or independent commission to investigate the matter. Nunes on Thursday declined to say if the White House had prodded him to disclose the existence of incidental intelligence surveillance on Trump associates after the election.

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that it was our democracy — and not just one candidate or party — that was attacked by a hostile foreign power,” Sen. Jack Reed (D.-R.I.) said in a statement, urging a special prosecutor. “And if Republican insiders further impede this investigation, they will be compromising America’s ability to defend itself from future attacks.”

But it’s not clear if political will exists at this point in Congress to do so, or to authorize a broader inquiry. Most congressional Republicans are still behind the president, though tempers flared between the White House and the Hill Thursday after lawmakers balked at Trump’s plan to revamp healthcare.

Many in the GOP, especially on the House Intelligence Committee, have aimed their fire at the leaks coming from the intelligence community rather than the object of the investigation. A parallel investigation is underway in the Senate Intelligence Committee, and has so far avoided partisan sniping, but both panels face obstacles, including small staffs and dependence on the intelligence community for cooperation in releasing documents and raw intelligence reports.

One big question is whether the White House’s efforts to distance itself from, or discredit, what increasingly appears to be a serious investigation will be an inflection point for Republicans. On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to minimize the role that Manafort played in the campaign, and wouldn’t say if any associates of Trump had coordinated with Russia.

“The way that term ‘associates’ is thrown around, I don’t know what that means,” he said of the former campaign manager. Trump continues to mock on Twitter what he views, in contrast to the intelligence community, as “fake news.”

Several congressional aides from both parties told Foreign Policy that if damaging new evidence emerges, or if public opinion reaches a major tipping point, more Republican lawmakers could begin to distance themselves from Trump over the Kremlin allegations and support the creation of an independent commission to investigate the case.

Republican reticence so far stands in contrast to the position eventually staked out by the GOP during another tectonic presidential scandal.

“The heroes of Watergate were really Republicans, they were Republicans in the House and the Senate who wanted this investigated to the bottom: ‘What did the president know and when did he know it’,” former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein told CNN. “That’s what we’re not seeing here. We’re not seeing it from the Republicans on the Hill who are consumed by supposedly looking for leaks.”

Granted, the investigation is far from producing conclusive evidence of coordination. U.S. officials told CNN that much of what they have is circumstantial evidence. Uncovering the content of possibly sensitive conversations between Trump advisors and Russian representatives could prove impossible, and any paper trail documenting it may have been erased. Allegations of Trump campaign chair Manafort’s financial ties to pro-Russian entities in Ukraine — reported this week by the Associated Press — remain unverified.

“We may never get the satisfying answer that everyone wants. It could remain a mystery that never gets cleared up,” one Republican congressional aide on an intelligence committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told FP.

In the meantime, the investigation — and especially leaks to the media — are raising the heat on Manafort, who left the Trump campaign last summer after reports emerged that he had allegedly received payments from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party close to Putin.

Last week, the New York Times reported that Manafort allegedly hid payments from pro-Russian groups in the Ukraine with false invoices. This week, the AP reported that Manafort allegedly worked to advance Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda in Europe and the United States for $10 million a year from 2006 to 2009, and that the U.S. Treasury is investigating his offshore financial transactions.  

Those revelations come shortly after the resignation of Mike Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, for having misled the White House about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Russia-related investigations for misleading Congress about his contacts with the ambassador.

McCain, an outspoken Trump critic and chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, appeared exasperated with the politics threatening to gum up the investigation. He said on Wednesday that Congress had lost the credibility to objectively investigate the Trump camp’s Russia ties, and called for the creation of an independent commission.

“I don’t say that lightly,” he added.

Photo credit: MOLLY RILEY/Pool/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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