What We Know About Congress’s Russia Investigations

By Michael KellerMichael Keller

Congressional committees and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been trying to determine the scope of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Hearings have been somewhat sporadic, but they could be a recurring thorn for the president.

The House and Senate intelligence committees are formally responsible for conducting the main congressional investigations, and they’ve each held multiple hearings so far. On Monday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee is holding its own hearing. Several other congressional committees are likely to examine pieces of the Russia probe.

It can be hard to determine exactly where these investigations stand. The committees largely work independently, scheduling hearings and asking people to testify at the committees’ whim. Some of their hearings are held behind closed doors, and the details of what is disclosed are not publicly available. On top of that, the FBI is investigating both allegations of Russian interference and potential contacts between Trump associates and the Russian government.

The investigations start from the same premise—Russia interfered in the 2016 election. They will be looking at the role of Russian hacking and propaganda, as well as whether there was any collusion between Russia and members of the Trump campaign or transition team.

Stated goals

Congressional investigations have different lines of inquiry:
  • campaign collusion
  • ,
  • Russian interference
  • ,
  • leaks to the media
  • and
  • unmasking of officials
  • .

Politics has already intruded into the probes. In the House, Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, has recused himself from the Russia investigations after he was accused of sharing information about the inquiry with the White House. Republican Representative Mike Conaway of Texas is now leading the probe with assistance from Republicans Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Tom Rooney of Florida.

In the committee’s March 20 hearing, in which FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Chief Mike Rogers testified, questions tended to follow party lines. Democrats were focused on ties between the Trump campaign and Russian agents; Republicans wanted to know whether Trump campaign staff were “improperly surveilled” and whether classified information relevant to the investigation was leaked to the media. Often, answers could not be provided due to the confidential nature of the investigation.

Examples of questions from Mar. 20 House Intelligence Committee hearing

“Did Paul Manafort ever register as a foreign agent under FARA?”
—Jim Himes (Conn.) to James Comey, 1:52:16
“Does a Russian active measure attempting to succeed at collusion—does the person involved have to actually know? I mean, does it have to involve knowing collusion for there to be damage?”
—Mike Quigley (Ill.) to James Comey, 3:26:22
“Is it likely or plausible that the Russians might seek out Americans for Moscow’s purposes.”
—Joaquin Castro (Texas) to James Comey, 4:41:39
“Who normally in the NSA would make the decision to unmask?”
—Tom Rooney (Fla.) to Mike Rogers, 58:05
“Is the investigation into the leak of classified information—has it begun yet?”
—Trey Gowdy (S.C.) to James Comey, 1:39:58
“With or without an investigation going on, has anyone told you that they know who leaked any information [...]?”
—Brad Wenstrup (Ohio) to James Comey, 3:47:19

Questions in the Senate Judiciary subcommittee's May 8 hearing fell along similar lines. In contrast, the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings so far have shown a bipartisan focus on Russian hacking and propaganda.

Examples of questions from Jan. 10 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing

“There is, however, extensive press reporting on the relationships between the Russians and individuals associated with both the Trump campaign and the incoming administration. My question for you, Director Comey, is, Has the FBI investigated these reported relationships?”
—Ron Wyden (Ore.) to James Comey, 54:00
“But I want to ask, first of all, do we know if they would be able to manipulate the kinds of data that they had access to? So, for example, if you have a voter database in a local county that was penetrated, would they be able to change the information within that database?”
—Martin Heinrich (N.M.) to James Comey, 1:05:40
“Does the community have any intelligence to suggest that President-elect Trump or those close to him may have business interests that made them more disposed to deal with Russia?”
—Jack Reed (R.I.) to James Comey, 1:47:09
“Give me a best guess. How many other countries is Russia currently or has, let’s say in the last four years, tried to influence in their elections?”
—James Lankford (Okla.) to James Clapper, 1:21:18
“Can you tell us when you believe that Vladimir Putin developed a clear preference for Donald Trump?”
—Tom Cotton (Ariz.) to James Clapper, 1:35:14
“And is this the first time in your experience where you’ve seen that sort of multilayered, multifaceted coordination between propaganda efforts and hacking into our networks? Or is this a new normal?”
—John Cornyn (Texas) to James Clapper, 1:42:49

The list of who has testified includes former Obama administration officials and experts on hacking, and it’s likely to increase. Reportedly, the Senate Intelligence Committee has asked to meet with some Trump campaign associates for closed interviews, as well as hand over financial records, emails and other communication records related to Russia or Russian associates. The Senate Intelligence Committee has granted itself subpoena power to obtain documents and potentially compel testimony, if necessary.

Who's testified so far?

Sen. Intel.,
Sen. Judic. subcom.,
House Intel.,
Sen. Intel.,
Sen. Judic. subcom.,
James Comey
Director, FBI
Mike Rogers
Director, NSA, and commander, U.S. Cyber Command
James Clapper
Director, National Intelligence, 2010 to Jan. 2017
John Brennan
Then-director, CIA
Toomas Hendrik Ilves
Former President of the Republic of Estonia and Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies
Heather Conley
Europe Program Director, Center for Strategic & International Studies, and lead author, “The Kremlin Playbook”
Ben Buchanan
Postdoctoral fellow, Cyber Security Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Kenneth Wainstein
Former Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush and former Assistant Attorney General for National Security
Eugene Rumer
Former national intelligence officer and director, Carnegie Endowment, International Peace's Russia & Eurasia Program
Roy Godson
Professor of government emeritus, Georgetown University, and former president, National Strategy Information Center
Clint Watts
Senior fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute’s national security program
Sally Yates
Former acting U.S. attorney general

What becomes of these investigations likely hinges on whether there was any collusion between members of the Trump campaign or transition team and Russian agents. If no direct ties are found, or the contacts are tangential, the investigations probably won’t be very consequential to the president. If investigators determine the campaign had a direct hand in Russian meddling, the fallout could be reminiscent of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.