GOP Senators Embrace Awkward Russia Probe That Could Hurt Trump

  • Investigation of election hacking, Flynn still at early stage
  • No timetable yet for testimony as investigators sift documents

A Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of Russia’s effort to influence last year’s U.S. election is shaping up as an unexpectedly bipartisan effort that could take months to complete as it explores the most significant controversy shadowing the new Trump administration.

The investigation, which will involve scouring highly classified material, is still in its early stages, but Republicans are so far joining Democrats on the panel in pledging to conduct it in a serious manner. 

The committee will examine the extent of contacts that President Donald Trump’s associates had with Russian officials before and after the Nov. 8 vote. In particular, it plans to look into conversations that Michael Flynn, who was ousted last week as Trump’s national security adviser, had with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.

Negotiations are under way with spy agencies including the CIA over how much access committee aides will get to highly classified material, according to U.S. intelligence officials. It’s not unusual for the agencies and committees to work out approval for aides to review material that’s classified beyond their normal security clearance levels, as well as what material they can have access to.

Senate Republicans don’t want to be seen engaging in a cover-up -- especially if leaks about additional contacts between Russians and people in Trump’s orbit continue to trickle out. But they also don’t want investigations to mushroom the way GOP efforts to probe the Benghazi attacks did during the Obama administration.

Head Start

Some Democrats have called for a select committee to be created to investigate the Russia allegations, while several other Senate panels, including Judiciary and Armed Services, have started to inquire about Russian interference as well.

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Intelligence Committee and the Republican leadership, acknowledged the appetite of other committees to investigate "may depend on how thoroughly the intel committee is thought to have dealt with this." 

He also told reporters last week, "If you do this in any other way and you started right now, any other committee or any other group would be where we are in maybe six months." 

Armed Services Chairman John McCain, for example, has been strongly critical of Trump’s talk about making deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has said he wants a thorough probe of Russia’s conduct during the election. Several other senators on the Intelligence panel, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have been notably more hawkish on Russia than Trump.

Republicans’ desire to contain the number of inquiries has created incentives for the party to work with Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, including hammering out a joint investigative plan that includes subpoena power to compel testimony from officials and associates of Trump’s presidential campaign.

That comity could be tested, however, if the panel begins to close in on information that could truly damage the Trump administration. Republicans could face some tough decisions on how hard to press for additional information.

Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters last week that while his party is united in supporting a robust intelligence probe, he still wants an independent commission because he doesn’t fully trust the Senate majority leader to let the current probe run its full course.

"I’m just not convinced that Mitch McConnell is going to let the Intelligence Committee get to the real story," he said.

Reams of Documents

There are already signs the investigation could be drawn out.

Senators have said investigators have started sifting through a repository of documents that formed the basis of the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia used a variety of means to influence the election in favor of Trump, including hacking of Democratic e-mail accounts and selectively leaking those e-mails. 

Another set of documents is related to the panel’s probe of Flynn’s contacts in December with the Russian ambassador regarding sanctions that had just been imposed by the departing Obama administration. And then there’s the potential for the committee to seek additional documents, as well as testimony, based on what they find, especially since the intelligence community’s review was done on a crash basis before President Barack Obama left office.

The panel’s ranking Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, said he is pleased with how Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina has handled the inquiry so far.

"We both understand how serious this is," Warner said. "This was an assault on a basic democratic process," he said.

‘Get It Right’

He added, "And what we are trying to do, and I give Richard a lot of credit, is to have this not devolve into a partisan food fight that doesn’t serve the public purpose. This is so important that we get it right."

After a closed-door meeting Friday with FBI Director Jim Comey, Burr and Warner shared smiles, but declined to talk to the press even to confirm they met with the director. The FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies are conducting multiple investigations to determine the full extent of contacts that Trump’s advisers and associates had with Russia during and after the 2016 campaign, according to four national security officials with knowledge of the matter.

Trump blasted the FBI on Friday over “leakers,” following a CNN report Thursday that the bureau rebuffed a recent White House request that it shoot down a media report that Trump’s associates communicated with Russians known to U.S. intelligence. The network cited a law enforcement official it didn’t identify.

A senior administration official told reporters Friday that the request to the agency was only made after an FBI leader indicated to the White House that investigators didn’t believe the news report was accurate.

So far, though, the Trump administration has been cooperating with the Intelligence Committee’s work.

"I have a high level of confidence we’ll get what we need," said Warner, who earlier described the investigation as the most important thing he has done in the Senate.

Under Oath

What’s less clear is how long it will take, and whether Trump associates, including Flynn, will testify under oath and in public.

That’s something many Democrats have demanded -- particularly in the case of Flynn -- but Republicans have generally been more circumspect.

Moderate Republican Susan Collins, who sits on the Intelligence panel, told Maine Public Wednesday that she wants Flynn to testify. With an 8-7 split between Republicans and Democrats, her vote could be pivotal. She even sounded open to the possibility of looking at Trump’s tax returns as part of the probe.

Two other Republicans on the committee -- Rubio and Blunt -- have also been especially vocal about the need to make their findings about Russia’s actions as public as possible.

"All of it that can possibly become public will and should be public," Blunt told reporters.

But the nature of the work means many of the documents will remain secret. It’s not clear that the public will ever get to see, for example, classified intercepts of conversations with Russian officials.

That will be a challenge for the committee as it works to write a public report that isn’t merely a bundle of assertions without evidence. A report that is bipartisan in nature will also carry much more weight than partisan ones, which gives Democrats some leverage to negotiate the details of the probe.

"We will get to the bottom of this,” Collins told Maine Public. “I will encourage that there’ll be some public hearings as well as the closed hearings that we’re doing now, and that we issue a report.”

"We’re not,” she added, ”going to exclude anyone from our review.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE