Updated on Wednesday, February 15
The resignation of Michael Flynn has elicited two starkly different responses from the leaders of the U.S. Congress. “It just seems like there’s a lot of nothing there,” Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in regard to the national-security adviser’s shifting accounts of whether he discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States in December. The real problem, Nunes asserted, echoing Donald Trump, is the leaks of information about Flynn by U.S. intelligence officials to the press.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the same intelligence committee, argues just the opposite: Something very big may be going on here, and the American people need to know more, not less, about it. It “seems implausible and unlikely” that Flynn “was acting as a free agent” when he contacted Russia’s envoy about Barack Obama’s retaliation against the Russian government for interfering in the U.S. election, Schiff told me. “I ... want to know if Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador about sanctions was something that [President Trump] asked him to do.”
“It’s the Russian goal to take down Western liberal democracy,” Schiff added. “In that hugely consequential struggle, if we’re being undermined by our own administration … that ought to matter to every American.”
Congress must also determine “whether any of the president’s team collaborated or colluded at all with Russia during the campaign,” Schiff said late Tuesday, shortly before The New York Times reported that members of Trump’s campaign had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the election.
That report raised but did not answer many of the same questions Schiff has articulated. The Times noted that intelligence agencies are still investigating “whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election,” and that “officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.”
I asked Schiff what his unanswered questions are, how he hopes to broaden congressional investigations into the Kremlin’s contacts with the Trump campaign, and why the probes are necessary in the first place. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Uri Friedman: You’ve called for additional [congressional] investigations. What are the questions, at this juncture, you feel are still unanswered that we need answered?
Adam Schiff: There are two broad categories of questions. The first is: What kind of contacts did Flynn and/or other members of the Trump campaign have with the Russians during the course of Russia’s interference in our election? That’s very much within the scope of our investigation in the House Intelligence Committee. Those allegations, I think, are the most serious.
The next set of allegations concern Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador in December, where they discussed the sanctions that had just been levied by the Obama administration for the Russians’ interference on Trump’s behalf in the campaign. And there we need to know exactly what they discussed, whether there were multiple conversations, whether there were also text communications as [White House Press Secretary] Sean Spicer has said, and whether those discussions were authorized by the president or others in the White House. And [we need to know] when administration officials became witting of the lie that Mike Flynn told [about not discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador] and that the vice president then propagated to the American people.
Friedman: David Ignatius [of The Washington Post] quoted you in an article as saying that you also wanted to know whether any of these communications were encrypted. Is that still a concern of yours?
Schiff: I’d like to know any medium that General Flynn used to communicate with the Russians. We know there were voice communications. We know there were text communications. And I’d be interested to know just how those communications took place. That’s something [I am] requesting of the FBI as a member of the Gang of Eight [group of congressional leaders on intelligence matters] and I would hope that we would have the opportunity to review any transcripts of those conversations or communications.
Friedman: To what extent have you, as a member of the Gang of Eight, been briefed on the content of these conversations?
Schiff: We have not been briefed yet. I was just in the process yesterday of requesting any tapes or transcripts be provided to the Gang of Eight.
Friedman: The House Intelligence Committee has an ongoing investigation [into any connections between Russia and the Trump campaign]. What more do you want to see that would satisfy you?
Schiff: First of all I want to make sure that the scope of our investigation is broad enough to include the events that led up to Flynn’s resignation. Plainly we have the charter to look at any of those contacts during the campaign, but it would be a natural extension to look at Flynn’s contacts after the campaign that resulted in his removal. [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell said today that he thinks that ought to be the subject of the Senate Intelligence investigation. I’d like to see us get the same commitment from [House Speaker Paul Ryan]. And I was concerned when the speaker refused to make that commitment today. If the speaker isn’t willing to do the investigation that’s necessary here, he should allow us to form an independent commission and he ought to get out of the way.
Friedman: What can you do as the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee to pressure the Republicans to take on that extra investigation? [The GOP lawmakers] Devin Nunes and Jason Chaffetz indicated today that there’s not a lot of interest on the Republican side in a stepped-up investigation.
Schiff: I think that [position is] going to be very difficult for the speaker to maintain, and ultimately it’s the speaker’s decision what he will allow his committees to investigate. If Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans think that this is an appropriate source of investigation, how does the speaker explain why he won’t let the House look into it?
Friedman: What questions do you have specifically regarding the president himself?
Schiff: The first is whether any of the president’s team collaborated or colluded at all with Russia during the campaign—during Russian illegal activities in the United States. That, I think, is a very serious allegation that needs to be investigated. But I also want to know if Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador about sanctions was something that the president asked him to do—was something the president was aware of, and was being done at the direction of the president, or any of the president’s staff, [Chief Strategist Steve] Bannon or anyone. Or whether the national-security adviser was acting as a free agent, which seems implausible and unlikely.
Friedman: Sean Spicer in his press conference today said [the White House] determined that [Flynn] did not do anything illegal. This was an issue of [lost] trust. And there’s been a lot of talk among legal experts about how this is not a violation of the Logan Act, which has been defunct for 200 years. So even if there was [direction] from some members of the administration [for Flynn to] bring up sanctions [with the Russian ambassador], why is that such a problem?
Schiff: You have to remember the context of this. The Russians had just interfered in the American elections in a way to help elect Donald Trump. The president of the United States, Barack Obama, then sanctions Russia for that interference. And then Trump’s team, through Flynn, reaches out to the Russian ambassador and potentially says, “Don’t worry about those sanctions. We’re going to take care of business. We’re not going to bite the hand that fed us.” That’s something that needs to be investigated. That’s hugely consequential.
And the broader context is: We’re in a competition with Russia right now. They are championing autocracy all over the world. We are promoting democracy. It is not communism vs. capitalism anymore, but it is authoritarianism vs. representative government. And it’s the Russian goal to take down Western liberal democracy. In that hugely consequential struggle, if we’re being undermined by our own administration—by General Flynn having secret talks with the Russians about undermining then-President Obama’s policy—that ought to matter to every American.
Friedman: Are you encouraged by the Trump administration’s move to accept the resignation of Flynn? Do you think that means Trump’s taking the threats you just mentioned seriously?
Schiff: No, I don’t at all. And here’s what really concerns me about what Sean Spicer had to say today. The president has known for weeks, apparently, that Flynn lied. And their only question was: Did he violate the Logan Act? No one seems to be asking the question: Shouldn’t we tell the American people that they’ve been lied to? And they were completely willing to have the American public deceived. It’s only when The Washington Post broke the story that they felt they needed to act by firing Flynn. But they still have expressed no remorse for the fact that they misled the entire country and were content to do so, and were never going to correct the record unless they [were] exposed. That tells me that they have a very high tolerance for misleading the public.
Friedman: You don’t buy the argument that they were handling it internally before disclosing to the American public—that they needed to check the legal issues and—
Schiff: If by handling it, it means trying to dissemble and suppress information, perhaps. If it [means] taking a legitimate, appropriate response, there’s no evidence of that.