Top Russia investigators in Congress are straining to salvage some bipartisan cooperation amid acrimony that has come to threaten the credibility of their probes.
Partisan anger has unsettled Russia inquiries by the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee, but senior members of those panels say they hope to restore a sense of trust within their ranks. And Senate intelligence committee leaders are stressing their relative political unity in an increasingly hostile environment.
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But despite hopeful signals hopeful signals from lawmakers and aides of both parties about a return to cooperation, any bipartisan hopes will be sorely tested in the coming weeks — particularly as Democrats raise the volume on concerns that Congress has not taken action to prevent new Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm elections. Some senior Democrats are also insisting that key Trump associates be called to give more testimony before Republicans wind down the probes.
Still, some key members of Congress seem determined to pull back from the brink of all-out partisan warfare over Russia.
In a small but important example, the judiciary panel’s top Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), offered an olive branch to an infuriated Republican colleague last week. Feinstein expressed “regret” last week for failing to notify her GOP counterpart, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in person before she released a committee interview transcript with a key witness that Republicans had wanted kept private. The move had infuriated Grassley, who called it a breach of trust.
Blaming a “bad cold,” Feinstein told reporters that she “should have spoken with Senator Grassley before.” That defused a perception that Feinstein — who unilaterally released the testimony of Fusion GPS Founder Glenn Simpson, who commissioned a controversial dossier about Trump’s Russia connections — had given up on working with Grassley.
Grassley also defused the situation himself on Thursday, telling reporters that he saw no “breakdown in communication or cooperation” between the duo. On the same day that Feinstein released the transcript, Grassley pointed out, the two senators’ aides worked together to help secure “testimony she wanted from two people” as part of the investigation.
Another Judiciary committee Democrat who has taken a hard line towards Grassley and other GOP colleagues whom he has accused of slow-walking their Russia probe also sounded a friendlier note in an interview.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) downplayed the Grassley-Feinstein tension as partly “growing pains” from an October splintering of their work, and said he hoped the committee can operate as a “coherent and bipartisan” whole in the future.
Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top House intelligence Committee Democrat and a frequently harsh critic of his Republican colleagues, struck a notably conciliatory tone in a briefing with reporters last week.
Nothing that Republicans hadn’t yet shut down his committee’s 10-month-old probe — despite some reports that they might do so by now — the Californian praised his GOP counterpart, Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, for striving to keep a spirit of collaboration alive.
“Obviously there have been hurdles to overcome — and we’ve had more than our share on the House intel committee — but we continue to make progress,” Schiff said in a Thursday interview.
Schiff added that despite his public skirmishes with committee Republicans, they are heeding some of the minority’s requests for testimony.
“We are bringing in additional witnesses — and some of them are even relevant to the investigation,” he said with a smile.
President Donald Trump himself shows no sign of collegiality when it comes to the Russia probes, however. Trump continues applying public pressure to Republicans to “take control” of the investigations and prods them to bring the probes to a conclusion soon.
On Twitter and in a Wall Street Journal interview this week, Trump called out Feinstein and Schiff directly, accusing each without basis of committing crimes in their handling of their respective probes.
“Democrat Dianne Feinstein should never have released secret committee testimony to the public without authorization,” he tweeted Thursday. “Very disrespectful to committee members and possibly illegal.”
And partisan suspicions still run deep among members of Congress, and could easily inflame again.
Conaway said he hopes to conclude the House Intelligence Committee probe quickly, talk that angers Democrats who believe Republicans are trying to rush the panel’s investigation to a premature conclusion.
“The sooner I can get this thing done the better,” he said. “The American people deserve an answer to these questions.
Democrats also said they are losing patience with what they see as a GOP reluctance to take election security seriously.
“To me, the acid test is, we’ve really got to start thinking about what we’re going to do as a committee to recommend legislation to protect the 2018 election,” Whitehouse said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release its own recommendations as soon as next month. But it is unclear whether Congress will take legislative action.
The committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), said Thursday that he and committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are “still sorting through what form” the panel will use to issue election-security recommendations ahead of a Congressional primary season that begins in March. He added that he expects ” broad-based bipartisan support” for that move.
Less clear is what election security recommendations the House might offer. Suggesting he believes Congress has little role to play, Conaway told reporters last week he believes the responsibility for safeguarding elections falls primarily on state-level election officials. He also said voters need to make their decisions with a discerning eye.
“The voter themselves is always responsible for what kind of information they take in, who they listen to, who influences them, how they make their mind up,” he said. Many Democrats believe that Russian “fake news” reports and social media postings might have influenced voters in Trump’s favor in 2016.
Some Democrats were skeptical that any Congressional findings can be free of political rancor, looking instead to the work of special counsel Robert Mueller.
“I’ve always been skeptical that the Judiciary Committee or the Intelligence Committee was going to be able to keep Republicans and Democrats together on their own investigations,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told CNN on Wednesday. “I think we’ve got to count on Mueller being the only place that’s going to ultimately get to the facts here.”
And even as Schiff sounded a conciliatory note on Thursday, he warned that any attempt by Republicans to shut down the investigation altogether would force Democrats to air all of their grievances publicly and identify avenues of investigation they believe were left unexplored. Schiff lamented that his committee had interviewed just 56 witnesses, about half the number quizzed by its Senate counterpart.
Schiff and others have groused that Republicans have blocked them from interviewing dozens of witnesses, scheduled crucial interviews out of state and at inconvenient times, and have diverted attention and resources to the question of potential anti-Trump bias at the FBI — something they call a cynical attempt to undermine officials who launched the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Democrats were also furious earlier this month when Grassley, joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), suggested the FBI consider criminal charges against the author of the Fusion GPS dossier, Christopher Steele, whom they sad may have lied to federal officials. Feinstein had been especially angry about the move, and many observers believed her decision to release Simpson’s transcript had been an act of payback that suggested a downward spiral for the committee’s leading members.
Another Democrat on the intelligence panel, Ron Wyden, offered a more direct warning Thursday as he pushed back against “this idea that gets bandied about” that the committee’s Russia investigation should wind down by any certain date.
Wyden insisted that Trump’s son-in-law and eldest son should make return appearances before the Senate Intelligence Committee to answer what he called unresolved questions about the Trump organization’s finances.
“For me, I’m going to push back with everything I have if somebody tries to say this is over without Jared Kushner or Donald Trump Jr. coming to the committee to answer questions,” Wyden said.