WASHINGTON – The Senate Intelligence Committee will begin as soon as Monday privately interviewing 20 people in its ongoing investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election as well as potential ties to the Trump campaign, its leaders said Wednesday.
Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said that “if there’s relevance” to those and other interviews that he and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., anticipate scheduling, “they will eventually be part of a public hearing.”
The two leaders stood side by side to update reporters about their investigation in a rare joint news conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill, called just as the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation appeared to be grinding to a halt.
Burr and Warner refused to comment on the political discord that has stymied the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation since its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., went to the White House grounds last week without telling his committee colleagues to meet with a secret source. He said he viewed documents that may show that President Donald Trump or members of his transition team were improperly identified in reports regarding surveillance of foreign targets.
Democrats have accused Nunes of coordinating with the White House to distract attention from the investigation into potential ties between the Trump team and Russian officials, and they called for him to recuse himself from the Russia investigation or step down.
“We’re not asking the House to play any role in our investigation. We don’t plan to play any role in their investigation,” Burr said.
While much of the House Intelligence Committee’s political infighting has taken place in public, the Senate so far has conducted the entirety of its Russia investigation behind closed doors – except for a public hearing in January with FBI Director James Comey, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and then-CIA Director John Brennan.
But the main difference between the House and Senate processes lies in how united the two Senate leaders are.
“Over the last month we’ve seen some progress,” Warner said. Later, with a hand on Burr’s shoulder, he added: “I have confidence in Richard Burr that we together, with the members of our committee, are going to get to the bottom of this.”
The difference is drawing notice on both sides of the Capitol. On Wednesday, a Republican congressman said the Senate should take the lead on Congress’ Russia investigation.
“The House is paralyzed on this thing,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said in an interview. “The Senate is moving forward. I think that’s the only committee that’s going to be able to bring us a report at this point.”
Dent is one of the first Republican voices to openly advocate taking the Russia investigation out of the House Intelligence Committee’s hands. Last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that “no longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone,” calling for a select committee or independent commission to take over the investigation.
“The bottom line is, it seems like the Senate is moving in a good way,” Dent said. “They have a much greater likelihood of providing a report than the House does at this point.”
Burr said the Senate committee has dedicated seven staff members to the Russia investigation and is “within weeks” of completing a review of “thousands of pages” of documents the intelligence community has made available to them. Burr added that although the committee is in “constant negotiations” with the intelligence community about access, it intends to request more documents – and expects to receive more – as the investigation continues.
Burr declined to speculate about where the investigation would end up.
In response to questions, Burr said he has not coordinated with the White House to set the scope of the Senate committee’s investigation. He insisted that, although he had advised Trump during his campaign – and voted for him – he could conduct the probe objectively.
He promised also to “test” some of Trump’s appointees during the investigation, to see whether they were ready to work with the committee’s investigation regardless of whether the president tries to influence them not to, as CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats pledged to do during their confirmation hearings.
Most of the initial 20 interviews the committee will conduct are with “the people who helped put together the January report,” Warner said, referring to a report that the intelligence community put out stating that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections with the purpose of trying to improve Trump’s chances of winning. Burr said that five of those interviews have already been scheduled, and the remaining 15 will be scheduled in the next 10 days.
While Warner and Burr did not list additional people they hoped would testify before the committee, they hinted that they might include Michael Flynn, who resigned as national security adviser over conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that he failed to fully disclose to Vice President Mike Pence, and former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who alerted Trump officials that Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. She was later fired after refusing to enforce Trump’s first immigration order.
The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration tried to prevent Yates from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in a meeting initially scheduled for Tuesday of this week. Nunes canceled that hearing last week.
The administration has denied that it sought to muzzle Yates. Nunes has said he canceled the hearing “to make time available” for Comey and Rogers to return to the committee to answer questions privately – questions that Nunes said arose after their open testimony before the committee last Monday.
That private briefing with Comey and Rogers was never scheduled. All interviews and depositions are now on hold in the House Intelligence Committee until that hearing with Rogers and Comey takes place, Nunes told reporters on Tuesday.
Burr said Wednesday that the White House had not tried to prevent Yates from testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He and Warner indicated Wednesday that Yates has not yet been scheduled for an interview or testimony.
Burr would not commit to an interview schedule with Trump surrogates who have volunteered themselves in recent days, such as former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former advisers Carter Page and Roger Stone, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. All four have reported connections either to Russian officials, oligarchs or organizations wrapped up in the Kremlin’s 2016 meddling efforts, such as WikiLeaks.
Burr said the committee would do such interviews only when it “determines we’re ready,” and only “if they’re even pertinent to the issues we need to look into.”
He added that the committee “will conduct an interview with Mr. Kushner when the committee decides it’s time to set a date, because we know exactly the scope of what needs to be asked of Mr. Kushner.”
Though the committee leaders declined to comment directly Wednesday on the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation or its chairman, Warner offered some thoughts about Nunes earlier Wednesday, telling reporters that if Nunes was onto something with the information he gleaned from his White House visit, it was a mystery to every other intelligence investigator in the Capitol.
“None of us, Republican or Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, has any idea what he’s talking about,” Warner said. He wondered aloud why, after the Trump administration denied any Russia connections and railed against leakers, Nunes would act in a way to raise suspicions about both.
“There continues to be more and more smoke about contacts between people related to the campaign and foreign officials,” Warner added.
The Washington Post’s Mike Debonis and David Weigel contributed to this report.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is under fire from Democrats who say the House intelligence committee chair should recuse himself from the committee’s investigation into Russia, because he’s too close to President Trump. Can Nunes retain his credibility as the investigation plays out? (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)