Can Congress Unravel the Trump-Russia Tangle?

Can Congress Unravel the Trump-Russia Tangle?

Can Congress Unravel the Trump-Russia Tangle?

Not if a renegade California Republican can stop it.


From the very beginning of the Trump administration, Devin Nunes, the California congressman and Donald Trump loyalist, has battled to deny, obstruct, and obfuscate the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference and, especially, the question of whether Trump and members of his campaign team colluded or coordinated with Russia. As early as this past February, Nunes, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), echoed the president by warning against a “witch hunt,” insisting that “there’s nothing there.” So over-the-top was Nunes in defending the president that in April he had to recuse himself, stepping aside from leading HPSCI’s investigation of Russiagate, with Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, comparing him to Inspector Clouseau.

But Nunes hasn’t gone away, and he hasn’t exactly distanced himself from the investigation either, even though Representative Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican who is more measured and judicious than Nunes, is now leading the committee’s work on Russiagate. Nunes is back, and he’s once again doing his best to derail the HPSCI. “It feels like here and there we make a 10-yard gain and then we go five yards back. We’re inching forward and then you see this obstructive behavior by the chairman, and you get frustrated,” Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who serves on the committee, told The Nation in an interview this week. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t destructive when the chairman does what he’s done.”

Nunes’s latest wrecking ball was released in late August, when he issued subpoenas to both the FBI and the Justice Department, demanding in a subsequent letter that the two agencies turn over “any and all documents relating to the agencies’ relationship with then former British Secret Intelligence Service officer Christopher Steele and/or the so-called ‘Trump Dossier.’” And, incredibly, Nunes—acting on his own authority, without asking for or receiving support from the HPSCI itself—threatened to seek a “resolution to hold the Attorney General and Director of the FBI in contempt of Congress” if they fail to cooperate.

Some background: Since the start of the multiple investigations into Russiagate, Republicans seeking to protect Trump have acted like a phalanx of octopi, squirting black ink into troubled waters. Because nearly all of them accept the fact that Russia meddled in the 2016 election by hacking into Democratic Party e-mail accounts and releasing the results to WikiLeaks and other outlets, they’ve raised other issues instead. They’ve railed against leaks to the media about Team Trump’s possible collusion with the Russians. They’ve accused top Obama administration officials of “unmasking” the names of Trump staffers caught up in conversations with Russia that were recorded and transcribed by US intelligence agencies. And they’ve ridiculed the Steele dossier, the 35-page document—published in January by BuzzFeed—that was a compilation of raw, unfiltered intelligence about collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.

Now, by dragging Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray into the mix, Nunes is seeking to prove… well, what exactly? No one knows. A scathing McClatchy report on Nunes’s latest venture cited lawmakers, former intelligence officials, and ex-prosecutors all agreeing that his quixotic campaign is designed to “cloud the facts and shift the direction of the inquiry,” with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin calling it “a charade.”

“[Nunes] shouldn’t be doing any of this, if he has truly stepped aside or recused himself,” said Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the HPSCI, in a September 7 appearance on MSNBC. “We’re determined to plow ahead and to ignore the distractions, but it is not very helpful to be picking a fight with the DOJ and the FBI. It also violates the practice of the committee, which is we seek voluntary compliance in getting information before we contemplate a subpoena, and here there was no written request, let alone bipartisan request, that we felt the DOJ or FBI was stonewalling on.… I suppose this was an effort by the chair to discredit Mr. Steele and maybe discredit the FBI.”

Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who serves on the HPSCI, told The Nation in an interview that what Nunes is doing is an unfortunate attempt to “distract us from what our real job is,” adding, “We’ve got to stop making this a partisan slugfest.” So far, she says, the committee hasn’t even sat down to discuss, plan, and organize where it’s headed. “One of the problems is, outside of meeting together when we’re doing interviews, we haven’t sat down and just talked about what we’re thinking, based on what we’ve learned so far. Which is a conversation that we need to have, and a meeting that needs to take place.” Speier called Conaway, who is now nominally in charge of the Russiagate inquiry, “a man of good will and good intentions [who has] been put in a very difficult position” by Nunes. “I hope that we can find a path forward,” she said.

The partisanship isn’t nearly as bad on the Senate side, where the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) is conducting a parallel investigation, often interviewing the same witnesses, following the same leads, and demanding the same documents. (According to CNN, both committees have gotten access to 20,000 pages of documents from the White House and the Trump campaign that relate to contacts between Trump and Russia in 2016.)

At the SSCI, from the start both chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of committee, have maintained a collegial relationship.

“The chairman has been publicly committed to pursuing an investigation, regardless of the consequences,” says a source familiar with the Senate inquiry. “And if there is a disagreement, they’ve agreed to settle it in private, rather than having dueling press conferences.” Not only that, the source told The Nation, but at least four other Republicans on the SSCI have expressed varying degrees of support for unraveling Russiagate, despite the possibility that it could lead to Trump’s undoing. Those four include Marco Rubio of Florida, Susan Collins of Maine, Roy Blunt of Missouri, and James Lankford of Oklahoma. Others, such as James Risch of Idaho, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and John Cornyn of Texas, are much more resistant, says the source. “But what you’re not seeing, in the committee as a whole, is active obstruction. There are members who are skeptics, but they’re still willing to let the chips fall where they may.”

When it comes to Russiagate, of course, the real action—the inquiry that could lead to criminal indictments, possibly even a recommendation to impeach the president—is with Robert Mueller, the special counsel brought on in May after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Yet the HPSCI and the SSCI have important roles to play, even if they differ from Mueller’s. “What Mueller is doing is a criminal investigation, and his goal is to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone performed illegal activity,” says a Capitol Hill source knowledgeable about the Russiagate investigations. “His mandate is broad, and he can address, for instance, financial matters and things that are far-flung and beyond [the two committees’] scope [and] things that look illegal but aren’t central to Russia.”

In contrast, the critical parts of the HPSCI’s and the SSCI’s mission are to examine how Russia intervened in 2016, to develop recommendations about how to prevent it from reoccurring, and to make as much information as possible available to the public—including much or all of the underlying intelligence that informed the Intelligence Community Assessment released this past January. “The ICA released its report in January, but there’s more information that could be put out there, in the public domain, and certainly there are significant questions about collusion, potential collusion, that the American people need answered,” the Capitol Hill source told The Nation.

Both Speier and Swalwell, in their interviews, agreed that informing the public and declassifying as much intelligence as possible is a crucial function of the congressional investigations. Skeptics on both the right and the left, including some writers for The Nation, have expressed doubts about the reliability of the January ICA, and both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill realize that getting more information out there is important. “There is a deep interest on both sides of the aisle to declassify as much of the evidence as possible,” says Swalwell. “The president has gone to great lengths to undermine the Intelligence Community Assessment, and so that really behooves us to have a report that is impenetrable because it is so transparent. That’s my goal.”

Both Speier and Swalwell have closely examined the classified information that supports the ICA and have no doubt that it’s accurate—that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, was responsible for the hack-and-release of Democratic Party e-mails in 2016 and that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, ordered it. “I spent probably ten hours at CIA headquarters to review it,” says Speier. “All the members of the intelligence committee have access to classified information. It’s all Top Secret, and we all have access.” Swalwell, who has also reviewed the Top Secret material, says, “There’s no doubt in my mind as to who was responsible, that Russia ran an interference campaign into our elections.”

Of course, Republicans have also reviewed the Top Secret material, and so far none of them—even the most rabid supporters of the president—have declared that they weren’t convinced by it. Yet, according to Swalwell, they could be more vociferous about acknowledging Russia’s culpability, and he wishes that they’d speak up more forcefully and more often about the fact of Russia’s 2016 election mischief. “It’s frustrating that they’re not louder about that. We need more,” he says. “We need more.”

The political difficulties faced by the HPSCI and the SSCI continue even amid explosive new leaks this summer pointing to the possibility that Trump and his allies coordinated with the Russians last year. The first was the revelation that three top Trump officials—Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner—met with a group of Russians promising to deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton and to convey Russia’s support for Trump, in a meeting at Trump’s Fifth Avenue tower in June 2016. The second was the revelation that Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, and a Trump-associated operative named Felix Sater exchanged explicit e-mails in late 2015 about getting Putin’s support to elect “our boy…Donald” president. That, and a lot more that has surfaced in 2017, seem to corroborate more and more of the famous Steele dossier.

That dossier, created originally at the behest of anti-Trump Republicans in 2015 and then, a year later, transferred to Democratic clients, is an opposition research file collected by two private firms, Fusion GPS and Orbis Business Intelligence. It describes a years-long pattern of contacts between the Russian government and its operatives with Trump aides and associates such as Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Cohen. Its first line reads: “[The] Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years.” And it describes both political and business contacts, along with salacious details that, it says, could be used as blackmail material by Russia.

Referring to the Trump Tower meeting and the Cohen-Sater affair, Swalwell says, “I see them as some of the brightest lights in this constellation of contacts that Donald Trump and his team had with Russia, and those contacts in particular show a willingness and an eagerness to work with the Russians. And the question we have to answer by reviewing all the evidence is whether Donald Trump’s willingness and eagerness materialized into a working relationship, where there was an exchange of hacked data and a partnership on how to use it, to weaponize it. That is still unresolved.”

The Republicans, he says, are trying to discredit the Steele dossier and undermine the FBI and the Justice Department, which oversees Mueller. But Swalwell says the GOP ought to show more curiosity about what is alleged in the dossier. “There are parts of the Steele dossier that are starting to come into focus, like Carter Page, like doing business in Russia, like Trump Tower, like the Sater-Cohen e-mail exchange.”

Over the next few weeks, a parade of Trump officials and former officials will pass in and out of HPSCI and SSCI hearings, as well as before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is conducting its own inquiry. There will no doubt be more leaks, more revelations, more documents released, more denials from witnesses and their lawyers. Stay tuned.

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