One thing was made crystal clear in a Wednesday press briefing on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election: this investigation is a very big and very serious deal.
In an hour-long appearance, committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice-Chair Mark Warner (D-VA) framed their probe as one of most ambitious investigative efforts ever taken on by a congressional committee. Burr, a 22-year veteran of Capitol Hill, framed the investigation as “one of the biggest” he’s seen in his tenure in Washington, D.C.
Warner concurred, saying, “When we started this, we saw the scope, what was involved, I said it was the most important thing I have ever taken on in my public life. I believe that more firmly now.”
Their solemn assurances to investigate the full scope of Russia’s involvement, to look into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian officials, and to produce a truly bipartisan report on their findings offered a stark contrast from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation, led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). The House’s probe came to a standstill this week over Nunes’ overly close relationship with the President, and he and ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) haven’t appeared together publicly in days.
Here are the key takeaways about the Senate committee’s investigation from Wednesday’s press conference:
Asked if there was evidence of “direct links” suggesting the President played any role in Russia’s interference, Burr said that was the ultimate question the committee would seek to answer.
“We know that our challenge is to answer that question for the American people in our conclusions to this investigation,” said Burr, who noted that he voted for Trump in November.
He and Warner also said it was too early to definitively reject coordination between Trump’s campaign team and Russian officials, saying they would “let this process go through before we form any opinions.”
Warner said he has seen “no evidence” to suggest that the White House is “interfering in the integrity of this investigation,” pointing to Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s offer to be interviewed by the committee as a “good sign.”
“If we see any attempt to stifle us with information or cut off the intelligence professionals giving us the access we need, you’ll hear from us,” he added.
In response to a reporter’s question, Burr also said that he has not coordinated with the White House to define his investigation’s scope.
The senators stated Wednesday that Russia is actively working to undermine or interfere with election campaigns underway in several countries outside the United States, including Germany, Montenegro, the Netherlands and France.
“We feel part of our responsibility is to educate the rest of the world about what’s going on because it’s now into character assassination of candidates,” Warner said.
He pointed to France’s upcoming presidential election, in which Marine LePen, a far-right politician and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a top contender.
“I think it’s safe by everybody’s judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections,” he said.
Burr and Warner went out of their way to put distance between their probe and that of the House Intelligence Committee.
“This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads it,” Burr said in his opening remarks. “And contrary to maybe popular belief, we’re partners to see that this is completed and that we’ve got a product at the end of the day that we can have bipartisanship in supporting.”
The senators emphasized information sharing between all members of the committee and reiterated their agreement to issue subpoenas to desired witnesses if need be.
In perhaps the most pointed dig at the House’s investigation, Burr said he would always share sources with his Democratic counterpart.
“He usually knows my sources before I do,” the chairman said.
Nunes has vowed to “never” share his confidential sources, even with the rest of his committee.
Warner said one of the most alarming findings so far in his estimation is the use of paid Internet trolls who promote false news stories and target them to specific geographic areas.
Saying that those trolls could have targeted states where the margin of victory was razor-thin, like Wisconsin and Michigan, with negative stories about Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the election, Warner vowed the committee has “got to find this out.”
He also noted that searches for terms like “Google election hacking” in the days leading up to and following the election would result in stories from Russian propaganda sites.
“That’s not in the scope of the investigation,” Burr said when asked if he would look at changes made to the 2016 Republican Party platform. Language in one GOP delegate’s proposal to have the U.S. provide “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine to push back against Russian military action was softened at the Republican National Convention to instead offer “appropriate assistance.”
The senators said the classified information they have been able to access far exceeded what was available to them during their investigation of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Seven committee staffers assigned to sift through thousands of intelligence documents have access to information typically only available to the most senior members of Congress, known as the Gang of Eight, the senators said.
“That is unprecedented in the history of the committee,” Burr said, adding that this makes it easier for the committee to determine who needs to be interviewed.
Burr said the committee would not release names of people who would be interviewed, nor ask them to come before the committee until the “appropriate time.”
Warner noted that the committee would not schedule its interview with Kushner, the only person named as an interview subject so far, until “we know exactly the scope of what needs to be asked” of him.
Both lawmakers emphasized the wide-ranging scope of the investigation, which will also look at Russian capabilities and previous influence campaigns.
The committee’s first open hearing on Russian election meddling, scheduled for Thursday, will take that broad, historical approach. No big intelligence names are scheduled to testify, but cybersecurity experts will speak to Russia’s methods and motivations.