As Mueller deepens Trump-Russia probe, congressional investigators face obstacles

Congress returns Tuesday to a demanding agenda: hurricane relief, budget and debt issues, and hopes for a tax system overhaul. But the inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and whether Moscow colluded with President Donald Trump’s campaign looms over all.
Congress returns Tuesday to a demanding agenda: hurricane relief, budget and debt issues, and hopes for a tax system overhaul. But the inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and whether Moscow colluded with President Donald Trump’s campaign looms over all. AP

Congress returns to the Capitol Tuesday, but the questions over Russia’s role in the 2016 election have never gone away.

The outlook, though, for bold, tough probes by lawmakers into whether the Kremlin colluded with President Donald Trump’s campaign could be dim.

The three committees cranking up to revive their inquiries into the allegations are riven by the same partisan battles that prevent congressional action on many other fronts. In some cases, the clashes are intra-party as the panels jockey for witnesses.

Lawmakers also face a crowded, demanding legislative agenda that has little to do with the investigations: raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget, overhauling the tax code and helping the victims of Hurricane Harvey.

“The agenda is just dominated by the budget, taxes and the debt ceiling,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former White House political director under President George W. Bush. “Despite all the other intrigues that are out there…that drives everything.”

Meanwhile, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation also confronts obstacles. Trump’s attorneys have tried to paint former FBI Director James Comey, a key figure whom the president fired last spring over the Russia investigation, as an unreliable witness: Comey says the president asked him to drop the investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who also had contacts with Russians; Trump denies it. The lawyers have also argued that Trump didn’t obstruct justice when he sacked Comey because as president he has the power to do so.

“There are a lot of attempts to distract and dirty up people who would be credible witnesses,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former Democratic aide on the House Intelligence Committee. “I find that laughable when it comes to Comey. At some point, Republicans have to look themselves in mirror and ask, ‘Is the behavior of the president by itself something we can accept or not accept?’”

Mueller chugs along

Mueller’s investigation has widened and become more aggressive over the summer. He has a grand jury. He’s enlisted the help of the Internal Revenue Service’s elite criminal investigations unit, whose specialty is tax evasion and money laundering. He appears to have linked his probe with the work of New York’s attorney general. In July, his agents conducted a predawn raid on the home of Paul Manafort, a former top Trump campaign official, to seize documents.

“In the last few weeks, there seems to be fairly large amount of energy in Mr. Mueller’s investigation,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a deputy to special counsel Kenneth Starr, who oversaw the investigation that led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. “He’s pushing forward certainly aggressively on many fronts.”

But Trump could still try to fire Mueller, as he wanted to do earlier this year. And his recent pardon of controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, a strong ally convicted of violating a court order related to his harsh treatment of suspected illegal immigrants, has been viewed as a signal that he might use that power to protect people from his inner circle, including family members, who could be caught in Mueller’s net. Manafort, whom Mueller appears to be pressuring to flip and provide evidence against Trump and others, could be a strong candidate for a Trump pardon.

The president has also reportedly had several heated phone calls with leading Republican senators over his displeasure with the continuing investigations, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Trump has labeled the focus on his campaign’s connection to Russia a “made-up story,” as well as a “witch hunt” and “fake news.”

In addition, Trump out of the blue last week phoned Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa to pledge his support for ethanol, a key product in the state and a political touchstone. Grassley is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is looking into obstruction of justice allegations related to the Russia probe, and will take testimony from Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s eldest son.

This summer, The New York Times broke the news that Trump Jr., along with Manafort and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top White House adviser, held a meeting in June 2016 with several Russians to hear what they thought would be damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

“These calls reflect a state of mind which is that he wants to halt all of the inquiries because seemingly he has something to hide,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “They will not be halted. He will not succeed in firing the special counsel. The ongoing investigation is real and urgent.”

A bumpy path

On Capitol Hill, the Russia inquiries seem to move in fits and starts.

“There’s a good reason for nothing to happen because most of them see it in their interest for it not to happen,” Rosenzweig said. “Congress, we know, has a tendency to duck.”

In the House, the Intelligence Committee has been wracked by partisan strife. Some Republicans appear intent on throwing “sand in the gears,” said one knowledgeable observer, who requested anonymity because of his role in the inquiry.

The ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, accused Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina and panel member, of acting like a defense lawyer for Kushner when he spoke to the committee in a closed-door session.

Committee members are competing for witnesses with the other panels looking at the matter. Over the summer, two GOP House Intelligence aides went to London in pursuit of the author, a former British spy, of a controversial “dossier” about Trump’s alleged Russian connections. The trip was kept secret from Rep. Michael Conaway, the Texas Republican leading the panel’s investigation. Conaway took over the probe when the committee’s chairman, GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California, had to bow out over his handling of classified information; he’s viewed as somewhat more likely to conduct a serious examination of the allegations.

The aides who went to London didn’t tell Democrats on the panel, either, nor anyone on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which had also reached out to the former MI6 operative, Christopher Steele.

The panel will be the focus of media scrutiny in coming weeks as Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen, who had numerous Russia contacts of his own, is expected to testify behind closed doors.

The Intelligence Committee on the Senate side has a more bipartisan sheen, but each of the leading lawmakers has had to deal with political pressures. Sen. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the panel, has to carefully navigate the concerns of lawmakers from his party who want no part of the Russia investigation and would like to see it shut down.

His Democratic counterpart and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, has to fend off colleagues who are pushing for a faster, more aggressive inquiry, with some calling for impeachment.

Besides the two Intelligence panels and Grassley’s Judiciary Committee, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been taking a narrower look at the foreign business dealings of Flynn. Republicans have stiff-armed Democratic attempts to seek documents. Gowdy now chairs that panel. His aggressive role in leading a House investigation into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s actions following the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, gives committee Democrats little hope that he will push as strongly on Russia.

None of the panels investigating the allegations has enough money and trained staff to properly to do their jobs, critics say. Their investigations also need to not interfere with Mueller’s work. But each treads the fine line of politics: Democrats run the risk of overreaching; Republicans fear the wrath of Trump voters.

It all makes for a turbulent season on Capitol Hill.

“Of all the investigations, the one that’s obviously central is the Mueller one,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. “But Mueller’s got the same dynamic: how do we manage this in such a way so it’s not being seen as a partisan issue?”

Matthew Schofield contributed to this story.

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ