WASHINGTON ― As the House investigation into ties between President Donald Trump’s associates and the Russian government unravels into a partisan debacle potentially tainted by the White House, the heads of the Senate intelligence panel have a message for the public: Ignore the mess in the lower chamber and leave the serious business to us.
In the first news conference together since announcing their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and vice chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) patted each other on the backs, praised one another’s commitment to truth over politics, and assured reporters that their investigation was moving along just fine.
“Mark and I work hand in hand on this, 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 you can have bipartisanship in supporting,” Burr told reporters on Wednesday.
The duo offered an update of the committee’s work ― but were careful to only share enough information to assure the public that their probe was proceeding smoothly.
The committee received an “unprecedented amount of documents” from the intelligence community, which were compiled into three binders, Burr said. Staffers are expected to finish reviewing the documents in the coming weeks. In addition to looking at ties between Trump surrogates and Moscow, Senate investigators are reviewing the process by which the intelligence community concluded that the Russian government had interfered in the election in an attempt to help Trump win. The chairman and vice chairman have compiled a list of 20 individuals they plan to interview and have scheduled times for five, they said, and are willing to use subpoenas to bring in unwilling individuals if necessary.
It was clear that Burr and Warner sought to draw a stark contrast between their work and the efforts of their House counterparts, where a dispute between chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and the Democrats on the committee has played out in an unusually public way.
Earlier this month, Nunes alleged that Trump surrogates ― and possibly the president himself ― were indirectly surveilled during the final months of the Obama administration. He briefed the press and Trump on his revelations, but has yet to disclose the identity of his source to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the panel. In the days that followed, there were indications that Nunes’ gambit may have occurred in conjunction with the White House. Schiff has called on Nunes to recuse himself from the committee’s investigation into links between the Trump team and Moscow, but the chairman has refused to step aside. The House panel’s work has ground to halt amid the chaos.
The Senate intelligence committee has long viewed itself as more competent than its counterpart in the lower chamber. And amid plummeting confidence in the House’s ability to investigate the Trump-Russia matter, Burr and Warner made a deliberate effort on Wednesday to assure the public that they were getting along great and to distance themselves from the trouble in the House.
Before answering questions from reporters, Burr set a ground rule: no questions about the House investigation. Asked if he would ever hide the identity of a source from Warner, Burr joked, “He usually knows my sources before I do.”
Throughout the news conference, the two senators sometimes exchanged looks at one another before answering questions to which their responses might differ. It was clear that each lawmaker was making a concerted effort not to say anything in public that would upset the other.
The chumminess between the two Senate intel heads obscured the somewhat bumpy start of the committee’s investigation. In January, Burr, who was listed as a Trump adviser during the campaign, said it was outside of the committee’s purview to look at ties between Trump surrogates and the Russian government. The unilateral declaration about the scope of the committee’s probe sparked concerns among Democrats that Burr would hamstring the investigation. Within hours, Burr appeared to have backed down. The committee released a bipartisan statement the following day clarifying that their probe would look at links between Moscow and political campaigns.
But on Wednesday, Warner was eager to dispel any suggestion that Burr was unfit to oversee the investigation because of his past ties to Trump. “I have confidence in Richard Burr that we, together with members of our committee, are going to get to the bottom of this,” he said, resting his hand on Burr’s shoulder.
Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner is the only individual who has been publicly confirmed as a person of interest for Senate investigators. The list could also include former Trump adviser Carter Page, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, political operative Roger Stone, and officials who worked on the intelligence community’s January assessment that concluded Russia meddled in last year’s election on Trump’s behalf.
Closed-door interviews may start as early as next week, Burr said.
The committee heads declined to describe in detail the process by which staffers view the secret documents, except to rule out the use of a shared secure computer drive. “That didn’t have a happy ending,” Burr said, referring to a 2014 feud between the committee’s Democrats and the CIA after it was revealed that the agency spied on investigators who were working on a report on the CIA’s torture program.
The intelligence community has been “for the most part” very cooperative in turning over classified information, Warner said. The committee has requested information that goes beyond what is usually provided to the so-called Gang of Eight, a select group of lawmakers who are privy to sensitive information, he continued.
It is unusual for the Senate overseers of the intelligence community to request raw intelligence data, Burr said. “We are in a very rare time, and we will test some people to see if, in fact, their commitment is 100 percent correct,” he said of intelligence officials.
The committee will hold its first investigation-related hearing since the inauguration on Thursday. It will focus on tactics used by the Russian government to undermine the 2016 election and ways it could be repeated in future elections in the U.S. and Europe. No current government officials are scheduled to testify.