Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.
An avalanche of developments fell this week onto the congressional committees digging into the connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
In the span of just 24 hours, lawmakers learned that the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to take over the Russia investigation; that the Trump campaign knew even before inauguration day that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was under federal investigation; that Trump contacted Flynn in April, against his lawyers’ warning, to tell him to “stay strong”; and that ousted FBI Director James Comey had not yet responded to several requests for him to testify on Capitol Hill.
With a new twist in the saga nearly every hour, the senators tasked with investigating the Trump-Russia connection are scrambling to determine how they can get to the bottom of a host of unanswered questions without stepping on the toes of the FBI’s work in the same area.
On top of all that, the lawmakers are also wading through a fog of confusion and misinformation.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) roiled Capitol Hill Thursday morning by announcing that Flynn’s lawyers had informed him that they would not comply with his committee’s subpoena for documents related to Flynn’s work for the Trump transition team and his contacts with Russian officials. Burr later walked that assertion back, saying that Flynn’s team has “not yet indicated their intentions regarding the Senate Intelligence Committee’s subpoena.”
The vice chair of the committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), confirmed to TPM that “[Flynn] has still got a little while longer to comply. He has not complied to date.”
Several members of the Intelligence Committee said they were skeptical Flynn would comply at all.
“I suspect that he believes he’s a target,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told reporters Thursday. “He probably has a lawyer, and that lawyer has advised him not to do it. Like anyone else, he’s got the right to protect himself. ”
Feinstein said that if Flynn’s team does end up refusing to honor the request for documents, the Intelligence Committee will “issue the subpoena, and they’ll carry it out to the fullest extent of the law. We’ll find out what that is for someone who may or may not be the target of an FBI investigation.”
She noted that if Flynn refused to testify, “nobody can force” him to. In light of this week’s revelations, though, she added: “I think he’s got serious problems. I’d like to leave it at that.”
Another Intelligence Committee member, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), pledged to use every legal tool available to get both documents and testimony from Flynn.
“I am going to go to the mat, go to the mat to make sure that this subpoena with Mr. Flynn is carried out,” he told reporters.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) echoed that determination. “Obviously we’ll have to go to court to enforce it,” he said.
Apart from the ongoing Flynn saga, lawmakers shared mixed reactions to the DOJ’s appointment of Mueller, the former FBI chief, as special counsel on the Trump-Russia case. Some, like Intelligence Committee member Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), said Mueller’s efforts “will actually get us to a resolution much faster. I think it’ll be helpful.”
But others, including Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed fear that Mueller’s appointment would impede Congress’ work.
“You’ve got a special counsel who has prosecutorial powers now, and I think we in Congress have to be very careful not to interfere” with his investigation, Graham said. “It’s going to really limit what Congress can do. It’s going to really limit what the public will know about this.”
Specifically, Graham cited the lack of response so far to his request for Comey to testify before the Judiciary Committee, saying that Comey may be restrained from doing so if he’s collaborating with the FBI’s investigation.
Because Mueller has no obligation to publicize the results of his investigation unless it leads to an indictment, several lawmakers continue to call for an independent congressional commission to be empaneled.
“Only a special prosecutor can bring charges and hold individuals accountable for criminal wrongdoing,” said Judiciary Committee member Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “But an independent commission can do what a special prosecutor cannot and will not do: issue a report with findings and recommendations.”
Blumenthal added that he is confident Comey will agree, eventually, to testify before Congress despite the FBI’s ongoing investigation.
“At some point I believe he has a responsibility, which he will honor, to come before the Judiciary Committee and tell his story to the American people,” he said. “He owes the American people his story, and from what I can see, he has no reluctance to tell it.”