Russia probes kick into high gear
Three congressional committees are pursuing investigations, and high-ranking Trump associates are expected to testify soon.
By AUSTIN WRIGHT and ALI WATKINS
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (pictured) and ranking Democrat Mark Warner have forged a close relationship, giving their probe one of the best records for bipartisan cooperation.
The congressional Russia investigations are entering a new and more serious phase as lawmakers return from the August recess amid fresh revelations about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In the coming weeks, both intelligence committees are expected to conduct closed-door interviews with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign, and potential witnesses could include Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr.
The two panels are also looking at possibly holding public hearings this fall.
In addition, Trump Jr. is set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is conducting its own parallel investigation into President Donald Trump and his associates’ alleged ties to Moscow.
The return of the congressional Russia probes also means the return of a phenomenon that has reportedly enraged Trump and caused him to lash out at GOP leaders: constant headlines about the latest incremental developments in these sprawling and unwieldy investigations.
There will be the daily, sometimes hourly, leaks about new witnesses, new lines of inquiry. There will be ominous cable news footage of lawmakers and witnesses disappearing into classified briefing rooms. And there will be grandstanding and bickering among members of Congress in both parties, many of them trying to capitalize on the Russian investigations to further their own political ambitions.
There will also be competition between three committees investigating many of the same issues and seeking testimony from the same witnesses — and doing very little to coordinate their efforts.
“They’re doing their thing and we’re doing our thing,” said an aide on one of the Senate committees, speaking of the other congressional panels.
In some cases, lawmakers asked their staffs to hold off on scheduling high-profile interviews while they were gone for the August recess — only to get annoyed when another committee then swooped in and scheduled their own interviews in the interim.
Over the summer, the respective probes bumped up against each other even more often than usual.
House Intelligence Committee investigators traveled to London in July to attempt to find and interview former MI6 operative and Trump dossier author Christopher Steele, either not knowing or not caring that Steele’s lawyers were already engaging with the Senate Intelligence panel.
Officials on the Senate panel were irked when the Senate Judiciary Committee announced its own open hearing with several witnesses — including Trump Jr. and Manafort — that the intelligence committee was also working to arrange interviews with. Neither Trump Jr. nor Manafort ended up testifying at the open hearing, and the committees are now separately seeking to arrange closed-door interviews with them.
Cohen, meanwhile, is set to appear for a closed-door interview with the House panel. The Senate committee is also expected to seek testimony from Cohen, a longtime Trump confidant and lawyer for the Trump Organization who is under scrutiny because of his outreach to Russian officials about a since-abandoned proposal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Of the three congressional panels, the one with the best record for bipartisan cooperation is the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia have forged a close relationship, often holding joint press conferences and issuing joint statements about their efforts. The Senate panel also includes several Republicans who’ve been highly critical of Trump and expressed a willingness to get to the bottom of his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, regardless of the political consequences. They include Marco Rubio of Florida, Susan Collins and Maine and James Lankford of Oklahoma. Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of Trump’s chief GOP critics, is an ex-officio member of the committee.
The House Intelligence Committee has been beset by internal bickering over witnesses and strategy. The panel’s controversial chairman, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), stepped back from the probe in April after the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating his handling of classified information. Since then, the investigation has been led by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who has sought to repair relations with the committee’s Democrats.
Top Democrat Adam Schiff of California has repeatedly said the committee’s goal is to produce a single, bipartisan report detailing Russia’s efforts to sway the presidential election, whether the Trump campaign was involved, and what can be done to stop future efforts by foreign powers to influence U.S. elections. But Schiff earlier this week expressed doubts about whether the committee can accomplish this goal, suggesting that it could end up producing separate Republican and Democratic reports.
If that happened, he told USA Today, “then Americans will have to read both reports and decide which one to believe. And that is far less than ideal.”
For its part, the Senate Judiciary Committee got a late start in its Russia investigation but has had a In June, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and top Democrat Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced a deal to investigate two issues: the circumstances behind the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and whether the Obama administration improperly interfered with the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Since then, Grassley and Feinstein have sought testimony from key witnesses, including Manafort and Trump Jr., using the threat of subpoenas to secure interviews. Their panel has also received about 20,000 pages of documents from the Trump campaign.