Senators vow cooperation on Russia amid House furor
BY KATIE BO WILLIAMS – 03/29/17 03:37 PM EDT
The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday sought to distance their investigation of Russia’s interference in the election from the partisan brawl that is consuming the House.
While House Intelligence Committee members say their probe has ground to a halt, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters together that their committee is making steady progress and is “within weeks” of completing an initial review of key documents.
“We’re not asking the House to play in any role in our investigation and we don’t plan to play any role in their investigation,” Burr said.
Intelligence Committee staffers are being given access to an “unprecedented” number of documents, Burr added. Seven staff members have been allocated to the Russia investigation, compared to three for the panel’s review of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Burr and Warner sought to show that their Russia investigation is on track and proceeding steadily, something that could help tamp down the growing calls for the appointment of special prosecutor or independent commission to handle the issue.
The Senate Intelligence committee has made requests to 20 individuals to be interviewed in connection to the investigation, and five of those interviews have already been scheduled, Burr said.
The remaining 15 interviews will “probably” be scheduled within the next 10 days, Burr said, and only Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, has been publicly identified.
The committee will schedule its interview with Kushner only when “we know exactly the scope of what needs to be asked,” Burr said.
Grinning genially and standing comfortably next to Warner, Burr told reporters that the “ground rules” for their appearance were that neither he nor Warner would take questions about the House panel.
The show of bipartisanship provided a stark contrast to the feud raging in the House.
Controversy surrounding chairman Devin Nunes’s (R-Calif.) decision to cancel a public hearing with several high-ranking for Obama administration officials — originally set for Tuesday — has derailed not only the committee’s Russia investigation, but its routine business as well.
“All of our meetings this week are canceled, which I’ve never seen in four years on the committee,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said. “Those were regular oversight meetings.”
A so-called “hot spots” meeting — normally held Monday evening when lawmakers return to Washington — and a second standing meeting scheduled for Thursday were both canceled this week, according to multiple committee Democrats on the House panel. Both “had nothing to do with the [Russia] investigation,” Himes said.
On Friday, Nunes announced he was canceling the public hearing with former Obama officials to allow for FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency head Adm. Michael Rogers to return for a second, closed-doors appearance before the committee.
Democrats say there is no reason why both hearings couldn’t have been held that day and accuse Nunes of acting under pressure from the White House. The first public hearing in the panel’s investigation, during which Comey confirmed the FBI investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia, was widely seen as damaging to President Trump and the White House.
Democrats refused to sign on to a letter inviting Comey to return before the committee at the same date and time originally set for the public hearing, according to multiple committee members and aides.
After Democrats declined to sign on, committee staff communicated directly with the FBI’s congressional affairs staff about Comey’s appearance — but no formal request was made, according to a committee aide.
Committee Republican Steve King (N.Y.) downplayed the cancellation of the week’s meetings.
“It’s one week out of the whole year, this is not the end of the world,” King said. “Obviously there’s a dispute going on, but it’s not that unusual to put a halt on things for a few days. I don’t see any harm being done.”
Regular order is set to resume next week, according to committee schedule.
Nunes told reporters Wednesday that the committee “is continuing to work,” but while he expects further public hearings in the Russia investigation, he does not anticipate holding any of them before Congress’s two-week recess next month.
Democrats — and some Republicans — have argued that the stalemate indicates the need for an independent commission or a select committeeto investigate the matter.
But Republicans in the Senate have thrown their weight behind Burr and Warner’s comparatively staid, closed-door investigation.
“There’s no need to entertain the possibility of an independent investigator or special commission until after our Intelligence Committee and the FBI complete their work,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said in a statement issued in response to Burr and Warner’s appearance.
Lankford sits on the intelligence panel.
A House Republican also argued Wednesday that responsibility for investigating the Russian interference is now in the hands of the Senate.
“I think the Senate is moving on a better trajectory,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) told CNN. “I think we’re going to have to rely on the Senate for a report on this Russian meddling in the election.”
Burr and Warner on Wednesday offered some updates on their investigation, but otherwise spent the 30-minute appearance offering assurances of the probe’s independence and bipartisan nature.
Warner said that it was “absolutely” the committee’s intention to produce a bipartisan report and emphasized the working relationship between himself, Burr and the wider committee.
“I have confidence in Richard Burr that we together, with the members of our committee, are going to get to the bottom of this,” Warner said.
Democrats have questioned Nunes’s impartiality by noting that he served on the executive committee of Trump’s transition team.
Burr was an advisor to Trump during the transition and on Wednesday disclosed that he voted for the president. But he rejected the idea that his loyalties might be compromised.
“I’ve got a job in the United States Senate and I take that job extremely seriously and it overrides any personal beliefs that I have or loyalties I may have,” he said.
“Mark and I may look at politics differently, we don’t look at the responsibilities we have on the committee differently.”