- The Washington Times
Monday, September 4, 2017

The progress congressional investigators have made this summer comes into sharp focus this week as House and Senate committees return to work to ratchet up the legal and political clash into any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin  — and whether Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s allies tried to falsely fan the story.

During Congress’s summer recess, investigators have interviewed key government and Trump campaign figures, received thousands of pages of documents and traveled to London to track down the former British spy who prepared the salacious, unverified dossier on Donald Trump’s supposed activities in Russia.


The SenateJudiciary Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence are all running probes parallel to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and any coordination between members of the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.


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Democrats have focused on suspected Kremlin links and well-documented Russian hacking efforts. Some key Republicans are increasingly pursuing a vastly different narrative: that the Obama administration spied on Trump campaign and transition personnel, first to aid Mrs. Clinton and, after her stunning election loss, to smear Mr. Trump and undercut the legitimacy of his victory.

Over the coming weeks, lawmakers will conduct more closed-door interviews with key players and take public testimony in some cases.

Among the highly anticipated testimony is that of Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, who has agreed to a transcribed interview with the SenateJudiciary Committee at a yet-to-be-determined date. The House intelligence committee has pushed to question Mr. Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen.


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While the committees have separate mandates and focuses of interest, one thing remains clear: There is no immediate end in sight for the intermingled investigations.

House intelligence committee

The battle for control of the probe into suspected Russian meddling, which has long divided the House intelligence committee, surfaced again last week when the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, expressed doubt that the investigation would conclude by the year’s end.

Mr. Schiff also speculated that the committee could produce two partisan reports rather than one conclusive finding.

Emily Hytha, a spokeswoman for Rep. Michael K. Conaway, the Texas Republican leading the House intelligence committee investigation, declined to discuss a timeline.

“It remains our goal to conduct this investigation thoroughly and as expeditiously as possible,” she said.

The battle revolves around divisions between Mr. Schiff and the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, who stepped down from heading the probe because of an ethics review into his handling of classified information.

Mr. Nunes has most prominently pushed the angle that Obama-era officials, including former National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice and former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, inappropriately asked to identify, or “unmask,” American citizens caught up in U.S. intelligence intercepts of foreign figures — in a covert attempt to implicate or “frame” a number of Trump campaign officials.

Ms. Rice has insisted that she never unmasked anyone for political purposes, but a veteran Republican congressional staffer familiar with the committee’s inner workings told The Washington Times, “We have information that will shed further light on this.”

The House panel’s divisions widened this summer after two Republican staffers were dispatched to London in an effort to locate Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence operative who authored the anti-Trump dossier. Democrats said they were not informed of the trip, and members of the Senate intelligence committee, who reportedly have also sought to speak with Mr. Steele, were also left in the dark.

Mr. Steele’s dossier includes lurid sex tales and accusations of extensive secret collusion between Mr. Trump and the Kremlin — both strongly denied by Mr. Trump. It has served as a key point of contention in the conflict between fired FBI Director James B. Comey and Mr. Trump, a conflict that has become a central focus of Mr. Mueller’s separate probe.

The focus on Mr. Cohen, a longtime attorney for the Trump Organization, soared in recent weeks after he gave the committee a statement acknowledging that he reached out to a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin for help on a proposal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow before Mr. Trump’s campaign had officially begun. Mr. Cohen said he never heard back from anyone about the project and it never got off the ground.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly denied having business interests in Russia.

Mr. Cohen was originally set to meet with the House committee on Tuesday, but a committee aide confirmed that the interview was postponed.

In a separate statement to the committee, Mr. Cohen’s attorney rebutted a series of accusations in the Steele dossier — among them that Mr. Cohen met with Russian officials.

“We do not believe that the committee should give credence to or perpetuate any of the dossier’s allegations relating to Mr. Cohen unless the committee can obtain independent and reliable corroboration of those allegations, which we do not believe exists,” wrote Mr. Cohen’s attorney Stephen Ryan. “Based on Mr. Cohen’s proffered responses to the dossier’s allegations, we do not believe that an interview or testimony concerning these allegations is warranted.”

Senate intelligence committee

Throughout the summer, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence conducted numerous high-profile interviews and endured far less acrimony.

Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, was a Trump supporter during the presidential campaign. But over the course of the Russia probe, he has evolved from a reluctant investigator into “a determined leader,” according to fellow committee members, including the top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent.

The committee held blockbuster public hearings this year to question Mr. Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on their interactions with Mr. Trump.

In early May, Mr. Trump stunned Washington by becoming only the second president in history to fire an FBI director when he dismissed Mr. Comey four years into a 10-year term.

The subsequent inquiry became the decade’s most anticipated political hearing and drew almost 20 million TV viewers. Mr. Comey told the committee that Mr. Trump had asked him if he could “get out” information that the president wasn’t under investigation and bring a quick end to an inquiry into fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

A week later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended his recommendation to fire Mr. Comey and vehemently denied suggestions that he helped Russia subvert the presidential election.

Over the summer, committee staffers also held a closed-door meeting with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a senior White House adviser. Mr. Kushner was at the ill-fated meeting set up by Donald Trump Jr. in New York last summer with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information on Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Kushner has categorically rejected claims that he had tapped Russian financing for his real estate business activities, colluded with Russian officials or sought to create a backdoor communications channel between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Overall, the committee has conducted almost 100 interviews. A spokeswoman for Mr. Burr declined to comment on any aspect of the investigation schedule, but Mr. Burr and Mr. Warner have repeatedly said they seek to deliver a report by year’s end.

Late last month, Mr. Burr said he and Mr. Warner wanted to focus the panel’s findings more on Russian meddling than on Mr. Trump.

“Some have tried to spin this that [Mr. Trump] didn’t really win, it was something that was externally orchestrated by Russian involvement,” Mr. Burr told The New York Times. “The fact is, they didn’t alter the vote count in any way, shape or form.

“I want to separate that from the threat that Russia presents us because we have got to go through this process,” he added.” We need to be punitive to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.”

SenateJudiciary Committee

For the SenateJudiciary Committee, this fall’s focus will be on leads obtained over the summer as a result of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents that committee investigators are sorting through.

“You can expect the committee to follow up on whatever facts they pulled out of interviews and documents,” said committee spokesman George Hartmann.

Guided by the methodical approach of Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, committee investigators obtained reams of documents from key Trump campaign officials. With multiple subpoena threats, the committee sought a broad range of documents related to Trump campaign efforts to obtain information on Mrs. Clinton and any coordination with Russian associates.

One area of intense scrutiny is the June 2016 meeting that Mr. Trump Jr., Mr. Kushner, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort attended.

According to committee officials, the Trump campaign turned over more than 20,000 pages of documents, Mr. Manafort provided about 400 pages and the president’s eldest son turned over another 250 pages.

The committee has also sought communications between Mr. Manafort and specific Russian and Ukrainian officials. The former campaign chairman has had to retroactively file forms to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act based on his work on behalf of a Ukrainian political party.

The filing, among the documents provided to the SenateJudiciary Committee, showed Mr. Manafort’s consulting firm received $17 million from 2012 through 2014 for work on behalf of the political party.

Legal analysts told The Times that Mr. Manafort’s continued cooperation could be key to the overall investigation.

Over the summer, reports emerged that the FBI raided his home to seize documents. He also reportedly added attorneys from Miller & Chevalier, a firm specializing in financial crimes and foreign bribery cases, to his legal team.

Committee investigators also have taken great interest in the dossier, which has been a focus of Mr. Grassley for months.

Over the course of the summer, they spent approximately 10 hours interviewing Glenn Simpson, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal who founded Fusion GPS — a company that conducts political opposition research and commissioned the dossier assembled by Mr. Steele.

Counterpunch

Russian election revelations and related headlines hung so oppressively over the administration’s initial six months that Mr. Trump described them as a political “cloud.” How the White House counters this fall’s Capitol Hill investigation news is a major question mark.

Earlier in the year and to the delight of his political base, Mr. Trump fought back aggressively on Twitter, dismissing the multiple probes as either “fake news” or a “witch hunt.”

Some critics even saw in Mr. Trump’s decision last month to abruptly pardon former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a longtime supporter facing sentencing on a contempt of court charge, as a sign to supporters and a warning to Mr. Mueller that similar pardons could be available for those the president thinks have been caught up in an illegitimate legal probe.

Beyond his base, Republican senators wished aloud that the president would abandon the volatile 140-character text message application while pollsters found his job approval rating reaching historic lows.

Republican strategists have speculated that last month’s departure of White House adviser Steve Bannon could have long-term effects.

Unlike other top Trump associates, Mr. Bannon never found his name seriously implicated in the probes. The combative political strategist was also seen as the administration’s “big narrative” guy capable of possibly deflating the Russia story.

At one point, Mr. Bannon attempted to establish a media rapid-response “war room” inside the White House to triage the Russia damage, but the effort never gained traction, leaving the angle that the Obama administration possibly spied on Trump campaign and transition personnel twisting in the wind.

Reports late this summer also noted that Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort were struggling to manage their legal bills. When asked about the potential impact, a Washington insider told The Times that congressional probes are “more a matter of attrition than investigation” and that once legal defense funds dry up, anything can happen.


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