5 things we learned from the Senate’s Russia probe update – Politico
The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday revealed they’ve “hit a wall” in their investigation of a dossier of unverified information about President Donald Trump and won’t wrap up their probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election until next year.
In a rare public update on the status of their investigation into Russia’s disruption of the 2016 election — including the possibility of collusion between Moscow and Trump’s allies — the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), touched on an array of issues the panel has encountered.
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Here are five things we learned from their 40-minute remarks:
1. No judgments on the Steele Dossier
The now infamous Steele Dossier — a collection of unverified allegations by a former British spy that Trump had sordid connections to Moscow — has been broadly dismissed by the president and Republicans as “discredited” or “disproven.”
But Burr and Warner stopped short of torching the much-maligned document, acknowledging they had been attempting to work backwards to corroborate its findings. The committee, Burr said, “hit a wall” because the dossier’s author — former MI6 Russia specialist Christopher Steele — had ignored multiple entreaties to meet with panel members and staff.
“The committee cannot really decide the credibility of the dossier without understanding things like who paid for it, who are your source and sub-sources,” Burr said. “Though we have been incredibly enlightened at our ability to rebuild backwards the Steele Dossier up to a certain date, getting past that point has been somewhat impossible.”
Burr said he and Warner had offered to personally meet with Steele and expressed hope that the former British agent would ultimately decide to testify. The dossier, which circulated in political and intelligence circles last year, went public when BuzzFeed posted its contents online in December.
2. Any final conclusions will have to wait until 2018
Beside Burr and Warner as they spoke was a bright blue chart that illustrated the work their aides have done on the Russia probe, including interviews with more than 100 people and and enough documents reviewed to fill more than 80 copies of “War and Peace.” But the bipartisan duo made clear that they still have a long way to go before releasing any findings.
In fact, “it’s safe to say that the inquiry has expanded slightly,” Burr said Wednesday.
Although he has said finishing by 2018 is an “aspirational goal” and discussed a possible interim report with Warner, the GOP chairman repeatedly underscored Wednesday that some of the investigation’s critical questions remain unanswered.
“We will come out with a finding at some point, and part of that hopefully will be recommendations about changes we need to make,” Burr said.
But Burr also suggested that the committee would work to crystallize its findings as quickly as possible ahead of the 2018 elections in light of their concern that Russian meddling efforts remain an active risk for campaigns on both sides of the aisle. The intelligence panel’s work, Burr said, “should create a road map” that other congressional committees and states can follow to help safeguard future elections.
3. Collusion is still an open question
Trump allies — and the president himself — have dismissed questions about collusion between Russian operatives and anyone in their orbit because no definitive proof has emerged. But Burr made clear that questions about whether anyone in Trump’s campaign cooperated with Russians to influence the 2016 election are still at the heart of the committee’s work.
“The committee continues to look into all evidence to see if there was any hint of collusion. I’m not going to even discuss initial findings because we haven’t any,” he said.
Burr described a “tremendous amount” of documents the committee is still parsing, and he noted that at least 25 more witness interviews are scheduled for this month alone. He also described several unfinished avenues of inquiry that revolve around interactions between Trump family members or associates and people linked to the Kremlin.
Among them: an April 2016 meeting at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel that reportedly occurred between Trump campaign associates and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and changes to the Republican Party’s platform committee that signaled more openness to cooperate with Russia.
Burr said the committee has already interviewed seven people who attended the Mayflower event and all provided consistent testimony, but he added that “pulling that thread may give us some additional insight that we don’t see today.”
Burr also said changes to the GOP platform’s language on Ukraine, which occurred in July 2016 at the Republican National Convention, appeared to be a genuine attempt by campaign staff to reaffirm U.S. support for Ukraine while also leaving the door open to stronger relations with Russia.
4. Comey’s firing isn’t a central question — for Intel
Four months after former FBI Director James Comey delivered dramatic testimony before the intelligence committee about his May firing by Trump, suggesting that the axing may have been linked to the president’s frustration with the Department of Justice’s Russia investigation, Burr and Warner said Wednesday that it is no longer a central factor in their probe.
“This topic has been hotly debated, and the committee is satisfied that our involvement with this issue has reached a logical end as it relates to the Russia investigation,” Burr said. Adding the caveat that “this is not something we’ve closed” entirely, he said that “we have exhausted every person we can talk to to get information that’s pertinent to us.”
That said, Comey’s firing and related questions of obstruction of justice remain a key issue for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Russia probe. Bipartisan leaders of the Judiciary panel have recently ramped up their interest in Russian meddling, making a bid for intelligence access and weighing new testimony from key players, and Burr said Wednesday that he would not get in the way of any other committee probe — with the hope that they run parallel to, and don’t intersect with, his own.
“Everybody has their jurisdictional lanes,” Burr said. “My hope is that they stay within those lanes.”
Burr also said the intelligence committee communicates “regularly” with Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trump-Russia connections.
5. Relations are warming with social media companies
After lambasting Twitter last week for a “deeply disappointing” briefing with committee staff, Warner softened noticeably on Wednesday toward the company — as well as Google and Facebook, the other social media giants under congressional scrutiny for Russia-linked ads on their networks.
“I was concerned at first that some of these social media companies did not take this threat seriously enough,” Warner said. “I believe they are recognizing that threat now.”
The committee has asked Google, Facebook and Twitter to appear at a public Nov. 1 hearing on how social media networks may have been used in Russian electoral disruption. Facebook and Twitter representatives confirmed Wednesday that their representatives would attend, leaving Google the only unconfirmed participant.
The top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, California Rep. Adam Schiff, wants to see public release of the thousands of Russia-connected ads Facebook already has handed over to Congress, but Burr and Warner said Wednesday that any decision on that front would have to come from the company and not the committee.
“If any of the social media companies would like to do that, we’re fine with it,” Burr said.
Asked if social media ads during the 2016 election could have been connected directly with political candidates’ campaigns, Burr said the November hearing would hopefully answer those kinds of questions.
“I think if you look from 10,000 feet, the subject matter of the ads seems to have been to create chaos in every group that they could possibly identify in America,” he said.
Ashley Gold contributed to this report.