Responding to claims from the White House and Republican lawmakers that the congressional and FBI probes into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is a partisan “witch hunt,” the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee laid out why he believes there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to warrant a serious investigation.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a former federal prosecutor, explained to reporters Wednesday morning that there is a high bar for each of the steps the federal government has taken to get to the bottom of how Russian operatives interfered in the 2016 presidential election and whether they worked with anyone associated with the Trump campaign.
“There was a good reason for the [CIA] Director to pass on information to the FBI,” he said. “There was a good reason for the FBI to launch an investigation. There was a good reason to appoint a special counsel. I don’t think any of that happens in the context of a presidential campaign without there being a reason for it. You don’t do that based on a suspicion or a hunch.”
Schiff’s comments echoed the testimony of former CIA Director John Brennan, who told the committee on Tuesday why he sounded the alarm about contacts he discovered between people working for the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
“I was worried about the number of contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons,” he said, noting that those contacts happened at the very time the CIA was learning about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election. “By the time I left office on January 20th, I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons involved in the campaign or not to work on their behalf either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”
“I don’t have sufficient information to make a determination whether or not such cooperation or complicity or collusion was taking place,” Brennan said under questioning. “But I know that there was a basis to have individuals pull those threads.”
After that hearing, the White House put out a statement misrepresenting Brennan’s remarks. “Despite a year of investigation, there is still no evidence of any Russia-Trump campaign collusion,” the statement read.
Schiff said Wednesday that such dismissive statements could be “a pattern from the White House of interference or worse” in the federal probes.
“He thinks the U.S. investigation is a hoax—’fake news.’ That sends a terrible message to our allies who are deeply concerned about Russian malevolence,” he said.
Schiff also echoed Brennan’s assertion that individuals in Trump’s inner circle may have aided Russian government officials without even realizing it. Asked by a reporter if it was “illegal to be a useful idiot,” Schiff smiled and repeated: “It’s not illegal to be a useful idiot.”
“But if there were U.S. persons conspiring with the Russians to steal documents, or coordinate the release of documents, that would violate a number of laws,” he added.
Schiff noted that even if his committee does not uncover any behind-the-scenes collusion, it is worth examining the troubling aspects of Trump’s relationship with Russia that have happened out in the open—from the unauthorized sharing of highly classified Israeli intelligence with Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister to exchanges of praise with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 campaign.
“A lot of what the Russians did is try to make nice with the president and say flattering things about the President, because they know simple flattery gets you a long way with this President, he said.