Rep. Adam Schiff has assumed a leading role among Democrats in articulating Congress’s response to ongoing revelations involving Russian meddling in the 2016 election and any elements of the story that may involve President Trump or his top aides.
Schiff is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which has launched one of several congressional investigations into Russian interference in the election. The Committee’s probe is looking into Russia’s cyber-activities against the United States; any intelligence regarding connections between Russia and U.S. political campaigns, such as Trump’s; and how the intelligence community responded to these matters.
All of this has taken on new urgency in light of new reports from the New York Times and CNN, which documented that U.S. intelligence officials have established contacts between Russian intelligence and Trump campaign officials during the campaign. This comes after revelations that the Justice Department warned the White House that Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, misled officials about his contacts with the Russian ambassador about retaliatory sanctions against Russia, which may have made Flynn vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
On the Flynn matter, Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, appears more focused on investigating how the transcripts of Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador were released, than on probing the significance of the calls themselves.
Schiff is well positioned to shed light on where the various inquiries might head next. I spoke to him today, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
THE PLUM LINE: The New York Times and CNN moved the ball forward today. What’s your reaction to that new reporting?
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: This is one of the key issues in the investigation: Was there some collusion between the Trump campaign and its agents and surrogates with the Kremlin? It’s probably the most serious allegation thus far…If the Russians and their hacking — and dumping of information — had any kind of coordination with the Trump campaign, that would violate all kinds of U.S. laws, and it’s hard to imagine a more serious violation of our democracy.
PLUM LINE: The Times seemed to stress pretty clearly that intelligence officials say they haven’t found any evidence of collusion. Doesn’t that suggest that maybe it doesn’t exist?
REP. SCHIFF: I can’t confirm whether those public reports are accurate. I can only say that this is a central focus of the investigation, along with the other elements of Russian interference in our affairs. In terms of the scope of what we’re investigating in the Intelligence Committee, that is one key area that we have agreed — on a bipartisan basis — will be the subject of our investigation.
From my own point of view, that’s probably the most important part of the investigation. We know the Russians hacked. We know they actively interfered with our election…The significant unanswered question is: Did they have the help of American citizens? Did they have the help of anyone affiliated with the [Trump] campaign? That’s something I want to get to the bottom of.
PLUM LINE: How has Republican cooperation on the committee been so far?
REP. SCHIFF: The only reason for concern, which has come up in the last 48 hours, is that we have to make sure we are not walled off from any appropriate and necessary area of investigation. We’re already investigating what took place during the campaign. We also ought to investigate Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador.
The House has to investigate this. And I want to make sure there’s not going to be any artificial limitation on the scope of the investigation.
PLUM LINE: Does that mean you want your investigation to broaden its focus to include the contacts between Flynn and the Russian ambassador, and to establish a potential connection between that and possible Russian-Trump campaign collusion?
REP. SCHIFF: Any of the Russian contacts with the Trump campaign surrogates, which include Flynn, have to be a necessary part of our investigation.
PLUM LINE: Can you give us a sense of how serious you think this is going to get?
REP. SCHIFF: I really don’t know. We are at the very early stages of the investigation, where we are predominantly gathering the documents that underlie the IC’s [intelligence community’s] conclusions of Russian interference. We’re also compiling a list of who we believe needs to be interviewed.
PLUM LINE: Who do you think needs to be interviewed as part of this investigation?
REP. SCHIFF: What are the buckets of issues that need to be investigated? One bucket is any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Another bucket is: How did the FBI respond when it learned that the Russians had infiltrated the DNC?
In the case of potential collusion, we really have to start with the Bureau [FBI]. One of the big questions will be: Is the Bureau going to cooperate in that investigation?…We’re going to require their cooperation and assistance. I don’t yet know what the Bureau’s position is going to be on that.
PLUM LINE: Can you compel that?
REP. SCHIFF: We can compel that. I would hope that won’t be necessary, but the record shows a willingness to provide Congress with investigative files during the Clinton investigation. In any event, I hope it won’t be necessary for us to compel the Bureau, but we are going to need their cooperation.
PLUM LINE: Will you compel it, if need be?
REP. SCHIFF: I certainly will support that, if that’s necessary.
PLUM LINE: Do you anticipate any problem on the Republican side with this?
REP. SCHIFF: I don’t want to get too far ahead here. I’m hoping the Bureau will cooperate and will be forthcoming…We don’t want to reinvent the wheel in terms of what the Bureau has already done. So while I would assume they will cooperate, we’re not at that point yet.
PLUM LINE: Who do you hope to talk to, beyond the FBI on this?
REP. SCHIFF: We’re going to want to talk to all of the elements of the IC that were involved in the investigation of Russian covert action [against] the United States…any that have anything to contribute understanding what Russia has done and is doing.
PLUM LINE: What about Trump campaign officials?
REP. SCHIFF: Where there is credible evidence that any of them were in contact with Russian officials, they’re going to be the subject of our interest as well.