Senior Democrat calls for House-Senate inquiry of hacking accusations

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is calling for a specific investigation into the connections between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian hacking.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is calling for a specific investigation into the connections between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian hacking.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday that he couldn’t gauge the credibility of the unsubstantiated allegations against Donald Trump but he wanted Congress to investigate accusations that Trump’s campaign had colluded in Russia’s hacking of Democratic emails.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California said a joint House-Senate committee should be formed to investigate “the entire spectrum of Russian covert influence activities” and “follow the facts wherever they lead.”

But aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Kentucky Republican wanted the Senate Intelligence Committee to handle the inquiry into what U.S. intelligence agencies have determined to be an influence campaign ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to help Trump’s candidacy.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona acknowledged handing the intelligence dossier to FBI Director James Comey last month, but told reporters at the Capitol, “I don’t know if it’s credible or not.”

“I did what any citizen should do. I received sensitive information and then I handed it over to proper agents of the government and had nothing else to do with the issue.”

At a news conference in New York, President-elect Trump denounced as “disgraceful” the release of what amounted to raw intelligence gathered for his political opponents, unproven information suggesting his campaign collaborated with the Russians.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the material – collected by a former British intelligence official as political research for clients of a Washington-based firm – as “absolutely fake.” He denied that the Kremlin collects compromising material about Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, as the former intelligence agent asserted.

Some key congressional Democrats called for the launch of an investigation before Trump takes office.

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon called on Comey to say before Trump takes the oath of office on Jan. 20 whether the bureau is investigating the allegations.

On Wednesday, Wyden sent out Twitter messages during Trump’s news conference. In one, he said Trump faced questions as to whether he would resolve “major conflicts of interest” with his business empire before taking office and whether the FBI had investigated his associates’ ties to Russia.

“None of these questions were answered and nothing has changed,” Wyden tweeted afterward. “January 20th is getting closer. . . . ”

Wyden’s implication was that once the Trump administration takes office, it will be Trump’s politically appointed attorney general, presumably Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who’s overseeing decisions on how far the Justice Department will investigate. Trump has yet to say whether he will retain Comey as FBI director.

On Wednesday, the FBI stood by Comey’s refusal to say whether it is investigating the matter.

If key parts of the former spy’s reports were proved accurate, Trump’s aides could face legal exposure. Page Pate, an Atlanta lawyer who has represented computer hacking defendants in about a dozen federal criminal cases, said the focus likely would be whether anyone from Trump’s campaign had participated in a criminal conspiracy.

“They’d have to show two things: One of those individuals or somebody in the Trump organization was aware of what the Russians were trying to do and then took some step to advance that goal,” he said. “They have to be aware of what’s going on, at least generally. They don’t have to know about all the details. They don’t have to personally be involved in any computer hacking. They don’t even have to know all the people involved.”

If somebody in the Trump organization joined in trying to conceal Russia’s role in the hacking, he or she could face conspiracy charges, Pate said.

“If they’re actually paying people (to do the hacking), you may also be able to charge them with a substantive violation” as an accessory under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act “because then they know a lot more about what’s going on,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal identified the retired British intelligent agent as Christopher Steele, a director of the firm Orbis Business Intelligence. People who know him have told McClatchy that the former spy of Britain’s MI-6 intelligence service built a solid reputation and a network of Kremlin sources during many years of assignments in Russia.

“He’s a well-known, successful guy, and Orbis is as a serious organization, precisely the type you’d hire to do something like this,” said a Western corporate intelligence figure who knows Steele. “MI-6 are well known to have better human sources than CIA.”

The corporate intelligence investigator spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Numerous news organizations throughout Washington were unable to confirm any significant portions of the dossier, a 35-page compilation of the former spy’s uncorroborated reports. The document, published Tuesday on BuzzFeed, suggests that Trump’s campaign knew at least as early as last June that the Russians were hacking the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic targets.

Nicholas Nehamas of the Miami Herald and David Lightman contributed to this article.

Greg Gordon: 202-383-6152, @greggordon2