The Senate’s Russia Probe Is Facing a Reckoning
Meanwhile, the Democratic-led House committee is gearing up for a reinvigorated inquiry.
Updated at 11:24 a.m. ET on February 16, 2019.
About two years ago, Republican Representative Devin Nunes, then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, went on a “midnight run” to the White House that changed everything.
Nunes embarked on the late-night excursion just as the panel he oversaw was opening an investigation into President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. He then used the information he’d obtained from White House sources to allege surveillance abuses by President Barack Obama’s administration, raising critics’ concerns that his chumminess with the administration delegitimized the House’s Russia probe. It was also a sign, critics said, that the committee couldn’t operate in a bipartisan way.
So the public looked to the Senate Intelligence Committee for a comprehensive, bipartisan examination of Trump’s Russia ties—a reputation the panel’s Republican chair, Richard Burr, who had served as a senior national security adviser to the Trump campaign, has largely upheld by keeping the investigation scandal-free. “Nothing in this town stays classified or secret forever,” Burr told the Associated Press last August. “And at some point somebody’s going to go back and do a review. And I’d love not to be the one that chaired the committee when somebody says, ‘Well, boy, you missed this.’ So we’ve tried to be pretty thorough in how we’ve done it.”
Though Burr and Mark Warner, the committee’s Democratic vice-chairman, have largely agreed on the parameters of the investigation, they have recently begun to disagree more publicly on what the facts they’ve collected add up to: Conspiracy? A series of coincidences and bad decisions? Or something in between?
The new Democratic chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, does not believe those questions can be answered without a thorough examination of Trump’s financial history and his potential entanglements with Russian money launderers, especially given new revelations about Trump’s efforts to pursue a multimillion-dollar real-estate deal in Moscow in 2016. So he has revived the panel’s floundering Russia probe by hiring upwards of a dozen dedicated staffers with expertise in corruption or illicit finance, or prosecutorial experience. That brings the total number of majority staffers, which could increase, to 24 on the House panel.* Many are bringing specific skills to the committee that the nine staffers working on the Senate’s Russia probe—despite their extensive intelligence-community experience—do not have, according to two people with direct knowledge of that committee’s work.
The reinvigorated House probe intends to pursue avenues of inquiry that may have been overlooked by the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee investigation, including the substance of Trump’s closed-door conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past two years. A particular emphasis will also be placed on Deutsche Bank—the Trump family’s bank of choice for decades, which was fined in 2017 over a $10 billion Russian money-laundering scheme involving its Moscow, New York, and London branches. “The concern about Deutsche Bank is that they have a history of laundering Russian money,” Schiff told NBC in December. “This, apparently, was the one bank that was willing to do business with the Trump Organization. If this is a form of compromise, it needs to be exposed.” Deutsche Bank representatives said last month that the bank was working with the House Intelligence and Financial Services Committees to “determine the best and most appropriate way of assisting them in their official oversight functions.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is pursuing a separate federal investigation into a potential conspiracy between the campaign and Russia in 2016. While he can issue indictments, the congressional committees can pursue a broader inquiry assessing misconduct that may not rise to the level of criminal activity.
It is undeniable that the Senate Intelligence Committee has traditionally been far more unified than its House counterpart, mostly by virtue of longer term limits and different rules. The committee produced important bipartisan reports over the past two years, including one last July that reaffirmed the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia worked to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016, and another that provided a sweeping analysis of Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns. The panel has also interviewed more than 200 witnesses and sifted through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.
Nevertheless, the bipartisan ground on which the Senate purported to have built its inquiry may be cracking. On Tuesday, Warner said he disagreed with Burr’s claim that the probe had found no “direct evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The comment left some legal experts perplexed, too. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a case where I have direct evidence of a conspiracy,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a Justice Department veteran who served as former FBI Director James Comey’s chief of staff until 2015. “If there is snow on your front lawn, you can safely conclude that it snowed,” Rosenberg told me. “Is that direct evidence? No. It’s circumstantial—someone could’ve driven up to your house and thrown snow on your lawn. But that’s unlikely. The law treats circumstantial and direct evidence as being of equal weight.”
Some Democratic aides were also confused by Burr’s recent claim that a key witness in the probe, the former British spy Christopher Steele, had not responded to the committee’s attempts to engage with him. In fact, Steele submitted written answers to the panel last August, two people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss the investigation told me.
The Senate’s subpoena for his testimony was dropped shortly thereafter—indicating that the senators were satisfied enough with his responses that they weren’t planning to compel further testimony.
Moreover, the House Democrats’ willingness to launch a full investigation into Trump’s financial history may not be “politically realistic” in the Republican-controlled Senate, said one of the people with direct knowledge of the Senate’s investigation. “The follow-the-money pieces of this are really important, but the question is, Who is best positioned to do it?” this person said, referring to the committee’s jurisdictional limitations. The source added that it was “absolutely fair” to criticize the panel’s decision not to bring in outside investigators with expertise in financial investigations, ethics, and money laundering. “But I give full credit to Burr and Warner for keeping this investigation bipartisan in a very difficult environment on such a fraught issue,” the source said.
Burr recently defended the decision not to hire outside investigators, telling CBS that they “would’ve never had access to some of the documents that we were able to access from the intelligence community.” A spokesperson for Warner declined to comment on whether the senator agreed with that assessment. A Republican committee aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the panel’s staff, reiterated that Burr has “full confidence in the bipartisan investigative staff, who were selected by both himself and the vice chairman. Over the last two years, members of the committee on both sides of the aisle have praised the investigators’ work and integrity.”
But Ryan Goodman, an expert in national-security law, told me he saw “red flags” in the way the investigation was being carried out, including the chairman’s “failure to hire outside staff with professional expertise and experience in complex investigations, and the failure to use the subpoena power to easily obtain financial records from entities like Deutsche Bank.”
“A successful congressional inquiry like this can stand or fall on the size and investigative skills of its staff,” Goodman added.
Another contention in the Senate’s inquiry is the extent to which Steele, the retired MI6 officer who in 2016 authored a collection of memos known as the Trump-Russia dossier, has cooperated with the committee. The body had prepared a subpoena for Steele’s testimony in March 2018, but withdrew it after he provided his written testimony in August. Investigators who have traveled to London since then have not approached Steele for an interview, according to Steele’s lawyer, who declined to be identified due to sensitivities surrounding the probe. Burr suggested in an interview with CBS last week that Steele remained out of reach. “We’ve made multiple attempts,” to elicit a response, Burr said.
Steele’s lawyer said that was “flatly not true,” and that the committee had actually agreed in writing not to seek further information from Steele after he submitted his written testimony. The panel has not reached out to request another interview, the lawyer said.
The Republican committee aide did not dispute that the panel had received Steele’s statements. But the aide said the committee had “made clear to Mr. Steele and his attorney that there is no substitute for a face-to-face interview when it comes to answering some of the committee’s most pressing questions.” A spokesperson for Warner confirmed that the committee “would like to speak with Mr. Steele.” The committee did not respond to Steele’s lawyer’s comments.
The dossier, which alleges serious misconduct and conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin in 2016, was presented to Trump by the nation’s top intelligence officials in January 2017. Trump dismissed it as “phony,” but many of the document’s core allegations appear to align with events during the campaign and are slowly being corroborated.
It’s getting harder for the Senate committee’s Republicans and Democrats to remain in step as they near the point where they’ll have to draw conclusions from their findings. One Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee aide put it simply: “There is a common set of facts, and a disagreement on what those facts mean. We are closer to the end than to the beginning, but we are not wrapping up.”
* This article originally mischaracterized the jobs of the 24 House Intelligence staffers.