The Russia Probes: How Will They Know and When Will They Know It?
Inside a secure room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., about 11 miles from Capitol Hill, there are several thick binders filled with thousands of pages of highly classified documents. It is this intelligence, which likely includes transcripts from phone calls intercepted by the National Security Agency, that formed the basis of the report issued in January by the U.S. intelligence community concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin covertly ordered his government to intervene on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
For the past several weeks, as part of dueling investigations by the House and Senate into Russian interference in the election, teams of congressional investigators have made regular trips to this room to pore over the documents, which contain some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets. Sometimes they’re joined by lawmakers, including the chairmen of both the House and Senate intelligence committees. The work is laborious and decidedly low-tech. No phones, cameras, or recorders are allowed inside. Weeks into the probe, investigators were still reading through the documents, and Senate staffers were negotiating with the CIA about putting a computer in the room.
All of this comes against the backdrop of an ongoing FBI investigation into links between Trump associates and Russia, including whether crimes were committed. It began even before the election was over and, along with the congressional investigations, casts a cloud over the nascent administration. It’s not clear if any of this will amount to a presidency-shattering Watergate scandal, or calcify into the kind of lingering Whitewater probe that lasts for years without taking anyone down.
What is clear is that this has the makings of the kind of investigation that Washington hasn’t seen in decades—and it’s not likely to end anytime soon. Armed with subpoena power, congressional investigators are looking to answer a familiar Washington question about Trump and his associates: What, if anything, did they know, and when did they know it?
The questions begin with what the government says was a massive Russian effort to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign and, in turn, boost Trump’s. The next question is whether anybody in Trump’s orbit colluded with Russian attempts to influence the elections. The real political dynamite would be evidence that Trump himself was involved. And then, as with any Washington inquiry, there will be questions about whether anyone tried to cover it up.
There’s already been a request for immunity from Trump’s short-tenured national security adviser, Michael Flynn, the retired U.S. Army lieutenant general fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about conversations with the Russian ambassador. The House Intelligence probe is facing its own credibility crisis after Devin Nunes, a California Republican who served on Trump’s transition team, breached the panel’s protocols by briefing Trump directly on intelligence given to him by people inside the White House.
Nunes stepped down from the investigation at least temporarily on April 6, after the House Ethics Committee launched a review of complaints he may have disclosed classified information. Nunes says charges against him are “false and politically motivated.” Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican, will take over the investigation for now.
The Senate committee, by default, has become the main event. Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and top Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia are trying to maintain a bipartisan approach to an investigation they both say is among the most important work they’ve done in their careers. The duo have vouched publicly for each other, and despite pressure from Republicans (and Trump) to have the probes focus more on leaks and the conduct of the Obama administration, Burr, who supported Trump, insists he’ll abide by his duty to investigate.
Seven Senate staffers are working on the probe, one of the biggest in Burr’s memory. But early hopes of a speedy conclusion have been dashed, amid a continuous drip of disclosures about contacts between Russians and Trump’s associates. “It’s not something that can be done quickly,” Burr told reporters on March 29.
Senate staffers have requested interviews with 20 people, starting with the intelligence officers who compiled the Jan. 6 report. Lawmakers eventually want to interview the web of Trump associates and White House officials over their contacts with Russians, including Flynn, former campaign chief Paul Manafort, onetime campaign adviser Carter Page, son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, and self-styled political dirty trickster and Nixon aficionado Roger Stone. They also want to hear from several Obama-era officials, including Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general fired by Trump, who reportedly warned the White House that Flynn could be at risk of blackmail from Russia.
The committee already has received briefings from top intelligence officials behind closed doors but plans to hold public hearings as the investigation evolves. That’s tricky and potentially time-consuming as it tries to figure out what can be discussed in public. But the senators say such hearings are key to building public trust. “We simply must—and we will—get this right,” Warner said at a March 30 hearing, where cybersecurity experts from outside the government detailed some of Russia’s hacking operations.
Warner said it’s clear Putin ordered a multipronged attack, including hacking Democratic email accounts, with the stolen data weaponized through leaks, and a massive propaganda and fake news campaign aided by thousands of internet trolls pushing fake stories on Twitter and Facebook—all of it intended to help Trump and hurt Clinton. “This is not innuendo or false allegations,” Warner said. “This is not fake news. This is actually what happened to us.”
Republicans have an incentive to cooperate with the probe, in part to stave off repeated calls—from Senator John McCain and others—for either a select committee or an independent commission to investigate. Launching that kind of effort from scratch would take months just to get the necessary security clearances, lawmakers say. In the meantime, the FBI continues to investigate ties between Trumpland and Russia, as first publicly disclosed by Director James Comey in a House Intelligence hearing on March 20.
Burr said they will be sensitive to the overlapping investigations. Warner, ominously, noted the precedent for simultaneous criminal and committee probes: Watergate. The goal will be to produce a bipartisan report that puts to rest what could be an existential question overshadowing Trump’s presidency: Does anything link him directly to Russia’s interference? “We know that our challenge is to answer that question for the American people,” Burr said.
The bottom line: Amid multiple probes, the Senate investigation into Russia’s interference in the election has become the main act.