Everyone knows about the major probes into Russia election meddling – the headline grabbing House Intelligence Committee, the more sedate Senate Intelligence Committee, and the counterintelligence probe by the FBI into whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign cooperated with the Russians.
What’s less well known is that five other congressional probes are under way into various aspects of the “Russia-gate” affair – a reflection of just how significant Washington considers the allegations of Russian meddling to be. Just about everyone in the nation’s capital wants a piece of the Russia scandal these days.
It’s a very young investigation. It will take some patience. This will take time.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., on investigations into the campaign of President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election
Consider Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose Appropriations Committee subcommittee, has taken testimony from representatives of Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
In that subcommittee, Graham was making the case for “a counter-Russia account,” or money to protect and promote democracies that “know what it’s like to live in the shadow of Russia . . . to help you withstand the assault.”
Graham also chairs a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on crime and terrorism that has held a hearing on the issue. During that hearing, Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice chair of Open Russia, which promotes democracy in Russia, testified that the election that catapulted Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency 17 years ago “was the last thing we had that was at least close to a democratic vote.”
“Not a single election held in Russia since then has been assessed . . . free and fair,” he said.
Graham has chaired three subcommittee hearings on the topic so far in 2017. He said he spends a lot of time on the issue because “Every effort to stop Russia in the past – whether it be Georgia, Ukraine, you name it – is clearly not working. My goal is to come up with something that will work.”
As he frequently has pointed out, he believes that the Russian attack on the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton should give no relief to Republicans.
“I want a better relationship with Russia, but that will never be achieved until Russia changes its practice of trying to grind democracy into the ground,” he said.
Or consider Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who’ve made a point this spring of asking questions about how the Trump White House has vetted the people it’s hired for key positions.
Their questions have centered on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who stayed in his post as Trump’s top intelligence agent for only 24 days.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Flynn’s appointment to the post, despite having been paid by the Russian government’s RT news agency, suggests the Trump White House had less concern about national security issues than those issues deserved.
“We are demanding detailed answers about the vetting of General Flynn and other White House advisers because it is critical to keeping Montana and our nation secure,” he said. “Flynn’s appointment exposed gaps in our security and raises questions about his contacts with Russian officials.”
Tester, who’s teamed up Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in this effort, said he can’t imagine backing down.
“We cannot take chances with our security clearance process, especially at the highest levels of government, and we must make sure we are taking steps to prevent future insider threats,” he said. Thus far their investigation has been limited to requesting information.
At the same time, the House Oversight Committee is pursuing an actual bipartisan effort to figure out how much Flynn was paid to represent foreign governments. This investigation, which is an effort by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has already exposed that Flynn was paid more than $50,000 by three Russian companies, including about $33,000 by RT TV, which the U.S. intelligence community considers the propaganda arm of the Russian government.
They are now awaiting answers to questions about any other payments from “Russian, Turkish, or other foreign sources.”
Chaffetz has promised a tough investigation with no interest in protecting Trump – if something turns up he should be chastised for. “Our job is not to be a cheerleader for the president,” he said during a January press conference. “I think that’s, over the long term, one of the things we’ll be judged by.”
In the Senate, a subcommittee of the Armed Services Committees has been studying Russian intervention in Ukraine, with an eye toward what it will tell lawmakers about Russian involvement in distributing “fake news” stories that undermined Clinton and boosted Trump during the 2016 election in the United States. A hearing the subcommittee held on the subject was entitled “Unconventional Warfare Operations in the ‘Grey Zone’: Lessons from Ukraine.”
“We cannot afford to underestimate the importance, or to ignore the lessons” of Russia’s disinformation campaign in Ukraine,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, the Iowa Republican who chairs the subcommittee.
“This is relevant not only as a history lesson,” said another member of the subcommittee, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says the multiple investigations offer one benefit – strength in numbers. “Investigations can be a benefit to each other,” he said.
As an example, he cited another committee getting a vetting form on Flynn that he had also asked for but had not received. The first committee passed the information along.
All of the congressional investigations rely at some level on outside help, and much of that comes from law enforcement. FBI spokeswoman Carol Cratty, when asked precisely how much information they’re providing to Congress on the topic, wrote in an email: “We have requests for information from various committees and are working with those committees.”
Of course, the one probe not yet launched is the one that most Democrats and more than a few Republicans would welcome – an independent commission outside of Congress that would be charged with determining independently what happened in the 2016 election.
The model for such a probe would be the 9/11 commission, which investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, and made recommendations to fix security lapses throughout the government that allowed the attacks to take place.
That also would avoid the spectacle, advocates say, of a Trump partisan trying to steer an investigation away from information and conclusions that reflect poorly on the president.
But to date, the Republican leaders of the two houses of Congress see no reason for such a probe, though the recusal last week of Rep. Devin Nunes from the House Intelligence Committee probe also indicated the kind of problem that a partisan probe can cause. Nunes stepped aside when the House Ethics Committee announced that it had launched a probe into allegations that Nunes had revealed classified information when he talked about documents he’d seen that he said raised questions about how Obama administration officials had handled classified information.
Nunes said the charges against him had been lodged by “several leftwing activist groups” though in fact anyone who’d watched the televised news conference where he revealed the existence of the documents could see how it might spark a probe.
Schiff, who’s worked with Nunes for years on the intelligence committee, said Nunes’ recusing himself was in the best interests of the House investigation.
“We have a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and nonpartisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands,” he said of Nunes’ decision to remove himself from the investigation.