Congress prepares to launch Russia investigations

WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leaders agreed Wednesday to a bipartisan probe inside Congress of allegations that people linked to President Donald Trump — including ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn — had frequent contacts...

Congress prepares to launch Russia investigations

WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leaders agreed Wednesday to a bipartisan probe inside Congress of allegations that people linked to President Donald Trump — including ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn — had frequent contacts with Russia during and after the 2016 campaign.

Democrats agreed to push forward with an ongoing Intelligence Committee investigation into Russia’s purported activities into the election, expanding the probe to include contacts made by Flynn and perhaps other Trump campaign officials with the Kremlin. They united around this course of action despite pressure from some Democrats to demand an independent commission to pursue the matter.

The decision was made at a Democratic conference meeting Wednesday morning hastily called by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Schumer aimed to get his colleagues on the same page following reports that Trump campaign aides spoke frequently with Russian intelligence operatives during the campaign. Flynn resigned Monday night after revelations that he spoke about sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States after the election.

Schumer; Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, explained their stance afterward.

They demanded that all committee investigations related to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election and contacts with Trump surrogates be bipartisan and comprehensive and that panel members be “committed to making their findings as public as possible.”

Feinstein and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman the Judiciary Committee, said later that they want a briefing from top administration officials about circumstances that prompted Flynn’s resignation, as well as transcripts of his intercepted calls and an FBI report summarizing the calls.

Democrats also want the Justice Department — specifically, the FBI — to continue investigating the allegations that Russia intervened in the 2016 election in an attempt to help Trump win. But they are insisting that former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., now the attorney general, recuse himself from the proceedings.

Leading Senate Democrats — some of whom advocated for an independent commission — said that isn’t possible unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signs off on such a move.

“I’ll be perfectly blunt: We need to have Sen. McConnell’s blessing before we’ll get a commission done. He’s not there,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Benjamin Cardin of Maryland.

Schumer had previously endorsed the idea of an independent commission to investigate suspected links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Other Democrats feared risking what precious momentum they had built for an investigation at all by pushing to take such a probe outside Congress.

“We’ve already started this process; we’re already starting to review the raw intelligence; we’re well down this path,” Warner told reporters Wednesday. “I understand others look at other things — I think that would greatly delay the process, and what I think everyone wants, regardless of where we stand, is we want to get this done expeditiously.”

For other Democrats, McConnell is the issue.

“I’m just not convinced that Mitch McConnell is going to let the Intelligence Committee get to the real story,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who advocated an independent commission.

Senate Republican leaders, meanwhile, responded to Flynn’s resignation by saying that the Intelligence Committee probably will examine the circumstances. They reiterated that position Wednesday.

“I don’t think we need a select committee. We know how to do our work. We have an Intelligence Committee,” McConnell said.

One Republican, however, said lawmakers should establish a “joint select committee” — consisting of members of the House and the Senate — to examine the new allegations.

“Now, was this outside the norm? Was this something damaging to the country?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday. “If there were contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign operatives that were inappropriate, then it would be time for the Congress to form a joint select commission to get to the bottom of all things Russia and Trump.”

Democrats are insisting on some ground rules for the investigations, which could take place in multiple panels.

They are demanding that the Trump administration preserve all its records from the transition period, citing “real concern” that officials might “try to cover up ties to Russia” by deleting e-mails, texts and other documents establishing links between the Trump White House and the Kremlin, Schumer said. Democrats also are demanding that Flynn, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and other campaign officials testify before the committees.

Republican leaders have not ruled out calling on Flynn and other officials to testify, but a majority of the Intelligence Committee would have to agree to issue a subpoena.

The GOP is divided over the revelations that Flynn misled his superiors about the substance of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Some Republicans insist that the real scandal is not the fact that Flynn lied about whether he discussed sanctions with Kislyak — but that those conversations ever became public.

“The leaks are coming from somewhere, and the surveillance came from somewhere. … obviously it’s coming from people that don’t want to see this administration succeed,” said homeland security committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

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