After a week in which the House of Representatives investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with the campaign of President Donald Trump spiraled out of control, the leaders of the Senate version Wednesday rather smugly pointed out that they were very much on track.
At a news conference Wednesday, Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Republican chairman and senior Democrat, said they would address only their committee and not the dysfunctional and shambolic mess that the House Intelligence Committee has turned into.
Then for the next hour, everything they said made it clear they did not want their probe confused with its House Intelligence Committee counterpart, where Democrats are demanding that the Republican chairman step down after accusing him of running interference for Trump.
The Senate committee will hold its first public hearing on the matter Thursday, and Burr and Warner said they had committed to a bipartisan investigation that would follow wherever the evidence led.
“I voted for Trump, but I’ve got a job to do,” said Burr, who also said there had been no coordination between the Senate committee and the White House.
Warner placed a hand on Burr’s shoulder to announce he had confidence that the chairman would lead a credible, meaning bipartisan, investigation.
“A foreign adversary sought to highjack our most critical democratic process, the election of a president, and in that process sought to favor one candidate over another,” Warner said. “I can assure you they didn’t do this in the best interests of the American people. Russia’s goal, Vladimir Putin’s goal, is a weaker United States. Weaker economically. Weaker globally. And that should be a concern to all Americans.”
When asked whether they could confirm or deny that Trump campaign officials had coordinated their efforts with Russian officials, Burr demurred.
“It would be crazy to try to draw conclusions from where we are in the investigation,” he said. “Even the snapshots we get as a team going through it are not always accurate when you find the next bit of intelligence.”
But, Burr added, “The mission of the committee is to look at any campaign contact between Russian government or Russian government officials that might have influenced in any way, shape or form the election process.”
The optics were probably necessary after a 10-day span in which the House investigation went from appearing to lead the way to falling apart.
The House committee held a public hearing March 20 at which for the first time FBI director James Comey acknowledged that his agency had undertaken an active counterintelligence investigation of possible Trump campaign collusion with the Russian meddling.
But that dissolved after a series of mysterious actions by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a Trump transition team member and the Intelligence Committee chair, who shared secret documents with Trump but not his fellow committee members, canceled a second public hearing to hear from Obama administration officials and failed to schedule a follow-up session with Comey and National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers.
On Tuesday, Democrats were almost unified in saying the House investigation could have no credibility if Nunes remained in charge.
When Burr was asked whether he would leave Warner in the dark if a source called him with information, he responded, “He usually knows my sources before I do.”
Warner added, “I’ve got his cellphone number.”
Burr noted that at this point, the Senate investigation has seven committee staff members working full time to go through the thousands of classified pieces of “raw intelligence and analytical product” that intelligence agencies used to produce a January intelligence community report that said Russia had favored Trump and had worked to undermine his campaign rival, Hillary Clinton.
That report, an unclassified version of which is online, gave the Senate investigation its initial framing, Burr said. But Burr also made clear that that was not where the Senate investigation stops. “We know a lot more now than we did then,” he said.
Burr described the thousands of documents the staff was going through as being in “three binders.” He said the committee had “unprecedented access” to information that usually is available only to the top party leadership, the so-called Gang of Eight on intelligence matters. He said the staff had “to date reviewed a majority of those documents. We are within weeks of completing the review of those documents.”
Burr added that “we’re in constant communication about access to additional documents.”
Warner said the committee was seeking more information. He said there was some intelligence information that they had not yet been able to view. When Burr pointed out that there had been difficulties determining which agency was allowed to release certain documents, Warner nodded in agreement.
Burr said the committee has invited 20 people to testify. Of those, five accepted and have been scheduled, and he said they hoped to have the remaining 15 scheduled within the next 10 days. The first of those interviews is expected as soon as next week.
The only invitee the leaders would name was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his advisers. They said they would name him because he had publicly announced his willingness to testify to the Senate, though they noted no time had yet been set for that interview.
Warner said that while some of the names now associated with the case would probably be brought in at some point, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, campaign manager Paul Manafort and foreign policy adviser Carter Page, he would not address when, and he said that no one would be brought in before the committee had seen the documents it would need to be prepared for the interviews.