Senate Intel Committee Eager To Avoid Partisanship In Russia Investigation

Mar 30, 2017
Originally published on March 30, 2017 10:05 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Congress is investigating Russia's attempted meddling in the presidential election, and politics is getting in the way. Today The New York Times reported today that White House staffers gave that information to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. Nunes told the press and president about that information before sharing it with his own committee. Nunes also suggested that it validates President Trump's unfounded allegations that President Obama had him wiretapped. The White House is not commenting on that story, but it says there is similar information that it wants to share with Democrats and Republicans.

While all of this back and forth has paused the House investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee is trying to show that it can handle questions about Russia without drama. They held their first open hearing in this investigation today. Here's NPR's Scott Detrow.

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RICHARD BURR: I'd like to call this hearing to order...

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: At the beginning of today's hearing, Republican Richard Burr said, yeah, it's kind of rare for a committee to talk so openly about something it's investigating.

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BURR: However, the vice chairman and I understand the gravity of the issues that we're here reviewing and have decided that it's crucial that we take the rare step of discussing publicly an ongoing intelligence question.

DETROW: The vice chair is Democrat Mark Warner. He was just as serious when he made his opening statement.

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MARK WARNER: We simply must - and we will - get this right.

DETROW: The Senate investigation the two men are heading is ramping up at a time when its House counterpart is falling apart. When Burr and Warner met reporters yesterday, several questions boiled down to this. Can you two work together, and can you keep your own politics out of it?

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BURR: He usually knows my sources before I do.

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WARNER: And he - let me assure you. I've also got his cell phone, which is - means he hears from me more than he'd sometimes like.

DETROW: The buddy act underscored a broader point. At this point in time, Burr and Warner trust each other. Of course the House Intelligence Committee investigation began this way, too. Democrat Adam Schiff and Republican Devin Nunes never appeared this chummy, but they made frequent joint appearances together and took pains not to undercut each other. Now Democratic committee member Jim Himes says the committee's work has been frozen.

JIM HIMES: You know, our intelligence community is out there doing things that need oversight. Let's just put it that way. And we have been completely shut down. This week, we're not even doing our regular hearings.

DETROW: Things deteriorated quickly after a public hearing where FBI Director James Comey revealed an active investigation into both Russian action and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Two days later, Nunes made that surprising announcement about Trump and his staff being picked up over the course of routine legal surveillance. Schiff eventually called on Nunes to recuse himself from the committee's investigation.

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ADAM SCHIFF: I suppose the last straw was the revelation that he had obtained whatever material he had obtained at the White House and then gone back to the White House to present the material.

DETROW: House Speaker Paul Ryan is sticking with Nunes but today acknowledged the committee's work has hit a major roadblock.

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PAUL RYAN: I think you're right. This has gotten a little political. Let's take a pause, and let's just get all the evidence, all the documents and find out what happened.

DETROW: Meanwhile, as the Senate Intelligence Committee held its hearing, the focus was on the big picture. Expert witnesses testified instead of government officials at the heart of the probe.

Clint Watts is a senior fellow at George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He told lawmakers how Russia works to sow distrust for institutions and other governments and how it uses trolls and fake accounts on social media networks to spread false information. Watts says the campaign has become much more effective because President Trump spreads false information, too.

CLINT WATTS: He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claimed that the election could be rigged. That was the No. 1 theme pushed by RT, Sputnik news, white outlets all the way up until the election. He's made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama's not a citizen.

DETROW: The lawmakers on the Senate committee are all taking the threat of Russian action seriously. No one seemed to question the basic premise that Russia worked to hack Democratic accounts and meddle in the election. That's a premise that Trump rejected for months and still lashes out against on Twitter. Scott Detrow, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.