Senate Investigators: ‘We Will Get the Facts on Trump’s Russia Ties’

In contrast to the rancorous House Intelligence panel and its near-frozen investigation, lawmakers in the Senate vow to remain free of White House interference.

GettyImages-660254736crop
GettyImages-660254736crop

With the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election collapsing amid partisan rancor, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence panel appeared shoulder-to-shoulder on Wednesday to pledge that their probe will avoid partisan infighting and focus on the evidence, including evaluating reports of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

“The investigation’s scope will always go where the intelligence leads,” Sen. Richard Burr (R.-N.C.), the panel’s chairman. “It is absolutely crucial that every day we spend trying to separate fact from fiction.”

Just over two months into the Trump administration, Burr and Sen. Mark Warner (D.-Va.), the ranking member, provided the first public update on the progress of their investigation, saying that it is proceeding apace. That stands in stark contrast to the House committee’s investigation, which now appears frozen in its tracks after cancelling planned hearings this week.

With the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election collapsing amid partisan rancor, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence panel appeared shoulder-to-shoulder on Wednesday to pledge that their probe will avoid partisan infighting and focus on the evidence, including evaluating reports of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

“The investigation’s scope will always go where the intelligence leads,” Sen. Richard Burr (R.-N.C.), the panel’s chairman. “It is absolutely crucial that every day we spend trying to separate fact from fiction.”

Just over two months into the Trump administration, Burr and Sen. Mark Warner (D.-Va.), the ranking member, provided the first public update on the progress of their investigation, saying that it is proceeding apace. That stands in stark contrast to the House committee’s investigation, which now appears frozen in its tracks after cancelling planned hearings this week.

On Thursday, the panel will conduct its first public hearings to examine Russian electoral meddling, with a host of independent experts who will describe Russia’s past use of intelligence and disinformation.  

The Senate committee has also requested 20 interviews and has so far scheduled five, with the first likely to take place next week. Most of the interview subjects, Burr said, are intelligence community analysts who authored the report concluding that Russia attempted to intervene in the U.S. election and to boost President Donald Trump’s electoral chances. But at this stage of the investigation, Burr said, “we would be crazy to draw conclusions” about whether Trump or his aides conspired with Russian operatives.

Also among those set to be interviewed is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Burr said, but no date has been set.

The committee has gained access to thousands of pages of intelligence reports and raw data normally reserved for the “Gang of 8” senior congressional leadership, and has assigned seven committee staffers to comb through that material. Committee staffers are “within weeks” of completing the review of that material, Burr said, and have examined a majority of the paperwork piled into binders and stored in secure reading rooms.

Burr, first elected to the House in 1994, described the investigation as one of “the biggest investigations that the Hill has seen in my tenure here.”

But even as Burr and Warner displayed a rare measure of bipartisan unity on an issue that has divided Democrats and Republicans, questions remain whether a Republican-controlled Congress can effectively investigate allegations that Trump associates may have coordinated with Russian intelligence to undermine Hillary Clinton during the election.

Burr campaigned on behalf of Trump and hitched his own hard-fought re-election campaign to the real-estate mogul’s coattails. In doing so, Burr managed to fend off a well-funded effort by Democrats to oust him. On Wednesday, Burr said that while he had voted for Trump, he can “absolutely” be counted on to carry out an impartial investigation.

That’s exactly the question that’s swirling around the House Intelligence Committee’s near-paralyzed investigation. Democrats have accused chairman Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) of running political interference for the White House, after he claimed that American spies collected information on Trump aides during the campaign. Nunes said he learned that from a source on the White House grounds but has declined to identify who it was, even to the rest of the committee that is conducting the investigation.

Asked Wednesday whether he would ever conceal the identity of a source from Warner, Burr shrugged off the question with a grin: “He usually knows my sources before I do.”

That backslapping display of bonhomie comes as a startling contrast to recent weeks on Capitol Hill, which have featured dueling press conferences between Nunes and Rep. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on his committee. Schiff and a slew of congressional Democrats have called on Nunes, a Trump ally who served on the incoming president’s intelligence transition team, to recuse himself from the Russia probe.

Burr campaigned for Trump, and, like Nunes, was recruited by the White House to try and knock down unfavorable stories in the press. But he has so far avoided Nunes’s fate by keeping a far lower profile on Capitol Hill. While the House chairman has embraced his role as an attack dog for the White House to fight back against a series of embarrassing revelations about the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, Burr has remained fairly silent.

On Wednesday, Warner said he remained confident in the North Carolina Republican’s ability to preside over an independent investigation, while other congressional Democrats are watching to see whether Burr delivers on his pledge.

The committee’s investigation of Russian electoral meddling will rely on material provided by U.S. spy agencies, and Burr and Warner said the intelligence community has been mostly cooperative in providing material, though some have been less so than others, Warner underlined. Burr said committee officials continue to negotiate with intelligence agencies for access to documents.

With crucial elections approaching in France and Germany, Burr said his committee’s investigation has important implications for the domestic politics of American allies. European intelligence agencies have accused Moscow of trying to influence the votes with a similar campaign of hacking and disinformation as they apparently deployed in the United States.

Less than a month before French voters head to the polls — with Russian favorite Marine le Pen of the far-right National Front near the front of the pack — Burr said it is “safe to say the Russians are actively involved.”

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Twitter: @EliasGroll

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