The top Senate Democrat investigating Donald Trump’s Russia ties says he believes a barrage of Republican assaults on federal inquiries into the matter are “a lot of bluster” and only indicate that probers “are getting closer and closer to connecting the dots.”
Even as Virginia Sen. Mark Warner made the remarks, Trump’s Justice Department and congressional Republicans ratcheted up the stakes in the escalating political and legal struggle besieging the president and rocking the nation’s capital.
The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported that the FBI has for months been probing whether Trump’s presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, traded favors for donations to the Clinton Foundation while she was secretary of state.
Meanwhile, two Republican senators asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Congress was misled by a former British spy who gathered opposition research about a web of Trump campaign connections with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
In an interview with McClatchy, Warner also said comments attributed to ousted White House adviser Steve Bannon in a new book undercut Republicans seeking to curtail the investigations. Author Michael Wolff quoted Bannon as saying that Trump’s campaign chairman, eldest son and son-in-law engaged in “treasonous” behavior by meeting with a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” about Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s son, Donald Jr., who enthusiastically responded to an email inviting him to the meeting, said it was brief and went nowhere.
Republicans are “throwing everything they can against the wall and seeing what sticks,” Warner, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.
He based his comments about the investigative progress mainly on the public record showing an unprecedented level of contacts between a foreign government – “a potential adversary” – and a U.S. political campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies said in a declassified report released in January 2017 that the Russians, with email hacks and social media attacks, sought to disrupt America’s democratic system and ultimately, to help Trump win the White House.
“There’s a lot of dissembling going on, and some of Mr. Trump’s allies are doing everything they can to try to change the topic or obfuscate,” Warner said.
Warner’s pushback comes amid rapid-fire rhetorical salvos echoing across Washington from Trump, who told the New York Times 16 times during a recent interview that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and the Russians, and Republican lawmakers threatening to shutter the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the matter and challenging the criminal inquiry of Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller; some of them have charged that the Mueller investigation is biased, citing anti-Trump comments in emails from a top FBI agent who has since been removed from the probe.
There’s a lot of dissembling going on, and some of Mr. Trump’s allies are doing everything they can to try to change the topic or obfuscate.
Sen. Mark Warner, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee
Mueller and his team have obtained guilty pleas from two former Trump foreign policy advisers, both of whom are cooperating with investigators, and secured criminal indictments against former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy for unrelated charges apparently aimed at pressuring them to become government witnesses. This week, Manafort sued Mueller and the Justice Department, saying the special counsel is exceeding his authority by pursuing matters unconnected to the campaign.
In addition, in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner on Thursday, two conservative House Republicans called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to step down so Trump could name a new attorney general. Sessions recused himself from overseeing the investigation due to his own Russia contacts, and it was his Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who appointed Mueller after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last May. Rosenstein has defended Mueller against the Republican attacks.
The New York Times reported that Trump directed his top White House lawyer in early 2016 to stop Sessions from recusing himself and was furious when Sessions did so anyway because he wanted an attorney general who would protect him.
In December, Warner took to the Senate floor to denounce calls for Mueller’s dismissal, cautioning that any attempt to dismiss him "has the potential to provoke a constitutional crisis."
“I thought we needed to put a bright line down,” Warner said in the interview this week.
His plea hasn’t impeded the Republican moves.
The Justice Department earlier examined allegations about the Clinton family’s global charity during the Obama administration. That initial inquiry began after the release of Clinton Cash, a book by a conservative author, cited evidence of quid pro quos, and prosecutors concluded there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.
Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, on Friday called word that the investigation has been reinvigorated “a sham” – an attack on a “philanthropy that does life-changing work, which Republicans have tried to turn into a political football.” He charged that Attorney General Sessions is “doing Trump’s bidding.” The FBI declined to comment on the reported investigation.
Warner also questioned why Trump campaign officials, including Trump, didn’t alert the FBI about the Russian lawyer’s outreach or any other foreign government attempt to influence the election. He pointed to a Times report last week revealing that in May 2016, a Trump campaign adviser confided to an Australian diplomat that he’d received a Russian offer to share “thousands” of stolen emails embarrassing to presidential frontrunner Clinton. Two months later, after seeing Internet postings of leaked Democratic emails, Australian officials reported the episode to the FBI, helping to trigger the bureau’s investigation of Russia’s election interference, the Times said.
“If you’ve got the Australian ambassador thinking this was important enough we ought to report it to the FBI, if you’ve got Steve Bannon thinking these kinds of contacts should be reported to the FBI … I think it would be reasonable to expect that somebody who was playing by the book would report these kinds of contacts or acknowledge a foreign government’s intervention in our electoral process,” Warner said.
Given that even former Trump political guru Bannon found the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower to be improper, Warner said he questions how anyone “looking for the truth could … walk away from these investigations.”
If you’ve got the Australian ambassador thinking this was important enough we ought to report it to the FBI, if you’ve got Steve Bannon thinking these kinds of contacts should be reported to the FBI … I think it would be reasonable to expect that somebody who was playing by the book would report these kinds of contacts or acknowledge a foreign government’s intervention in our electoral process.
Sen. Mark Warner
Republicans also have sought to discredit the FBI inquiry because the bureau was assisted by retired British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, whom a Washington consulting firm hired to gather opposition research about Trump – first with funding from a conservative Republican and later from Clinton’s Democratic campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
In the latest GOP maneuver, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Steele had lied to congressional investigators about the distribution of the dossier.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, California Rep. Devin Nunes, is using another lever of power, threatening to hold FBI officials in contempt of Congress if they fail to turn over subpoenaed records about Steele, who assisted the FBI’s Russia investigation. CNN reported Friday that, in a meeting with Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray this week, House Speaker Paul Ryan stood behind Nunes, though that confrontation cooled with a promise that some documents would be made available.
Warner said allegations in the dossier, which quotes multiple sources close to the Kremlin as describing collaboration between Russia and the Trump campaign, are “very damning” and that the committee has made progress toward substantiating some of them.
“I don’t know how you ever remove the cloud from this presidency without the allegations in the dossier being put to rest, either proven or disproven,” he said.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent