The House investigation into Russia’s election meddling is in shambles. The Senate is more than happy to fill the void.
As the House probe continued its collapse into a partisan shouting match Wednesday, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr and his Democratic counterpart, Mark Warner, stepped into the spotlight to present a stark contrast. Their message? We are the adults in the room.
The two senators delivered a bravura bipartisan performance at their first joint press conference, complimenting each other and vowing to bridge their political differences to get to the bottom of what Burr called one of the most important investigations in his 22-year tenure in Congress.
Burr acknowledged voting for President Donald Trump but said his job as Intelligence chairman “overrides any personal beliefs that I have or loyalties that I might have.”
And while Burr said at the beginning of the briefing that he would not answer any questions about the chaos in the House, the North Carolina Republican did not pass up the opportunity for a subtle and indirect jab at House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
Asked whether there’s any circumstance under which he would refuse to share the identity of a source with Warner — as Nunes is doing with his committee — Burr quipped that Warner “usually knows my sources before I do.”
Warner then chimed in, “Let me assure you, I’ve also got his cell phone, which means he hears from me more than he sometimes likes.”
In the lower chamber, Nunes continued sparring with his fellow committee members. “It appears like the Democrats aren’t really serious about this investigation,” he said, seeking to deflect blame for presiding over a probe that has ground to a halt over his own actions.
His panel’s top Democrat and fellow Californian, Rep. Adam Schiff, shot back with a news release debunking Nunes’ claim that Democrats had not submitted a list of potential witnesses and accusing him of not responding to their request to reschedule a canceled hearing featuring former acting attorney general Sally Yates.
The standoff began last week when Nunes held a secret meeting on the White House grounds with an unnamed source who provided what Nunes claims is evidence that Trump transition aides might have been improperly monitored.
Other members of Nunes’ committee have not been given access to this information, leading Democrats to accuse Nunes, who served on the Trump transition’s executive committee, of running a one-man show designed not to uncover the truth but to cover for the president.
Schiff and other top Democrats have called on Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation, something he refuses to do.
House Republicans have largely rallied behind Nunes, though some GOP criticism is trickling in. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina dubbed Nunes’ probe as “sort of an Inspector Clouseau investigation.”
“My sense right now is the House is in a situation where the issue has become overly politicized,” Rep. Charlie Dent said on CNN on Wednesday. “It doesn’t seem like there’s much cooperation on either side.” The moderate Republican from Pennsylvania added, “The Senate is gonna lead this discussion, or this investigation, on the Russian meddling into the election. I think that’s where it is.”
Burr and Warner, in their joint news conference, sought to make clear they are up to the task.
Still, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation got off to a rocky start, with Democrats threatening a boycott until Burr relented and agreed to include in the scope of the probe the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Warner also expressed “grave concerns” last month after it was revealed that Burr called reporters at the behest of the White House to rebut allegations of frequent communications between Trump aides and Russian officials.
Since then, though, the two senators have reached agreement on key issues and launched what both of them described as a serious and earnest effort to answer a series of momentous questions: Why and how did Russia seek to sway the election toward Trump, and were Trump or his aides in the know?
“I have confidence in Richard Burr that we, together with the members of our committee, are going to get to the bottom of this,” Warner said.
Burr said the committee had devoted seven staffers to the investigation and that these aides were being provided access to information previously only available to the congressional leaders in the House and Senate and the heads of the Intelligence panels.
“The staff has been provided an unprecedented amount of documents,” he said.
He also said the committee had scheduled five private witness interviews and was working to set up interviews with another 15 witnesses. The only witness who’s been named publicly is Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner, who has offered to speak about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador and a Russian businessman. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort has also offered himself up for an interview.
The panel is set to hold a two-part hearing on Thursday with outside experts to discuss Russia’s election interference.
Wednesday’s joint appearance earned accolades from Senate Intelligence Committee members James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who issued statements commending Burr and Warner for their bipartisanship.
Both Burr and Warner said their goal was to produce a single, bipartisan report providing some clear answers to the American people about Russia’s effort to undermine American democracy.
That will mean avoiding the kind of dust-ups that have characterized the House probe, even if Burr wouldn’t say that explicitly.
“We’re not asking the House to play any role in our investigation,” Burr told reporters. “We don’t plan to play any role in their investigation.”
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