The Republican running the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election appears to have passed information regarding the status of the FBI's probe of Russian influence on to the White House Counsel’s Office in early 2017, according to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report.
The report, a redacted version of which was released to the public Thursday, states that the White House Counsel’s Office “appears to have received information about the status of the FBI investigation” from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in March 2017, just about a week after then-FBI Director James B. Comey briefed the “Gang of Eight” — the congressional leaders privy to the most sensitive intelligence — about the bureau’s Russia investigation.
Through a spokeswoman, Burr said Thursday that he did not recall any such conversation taking place.
“Chairman Burr does not recall this specific conversation with Mr. McGahn in March of 2017; however, any conversations between the two would have been in reference to the need for White House personnel to voluntarily comply with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation,” Intelligence Committee spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said in a statement. “If specific individuals were discussed, they would have been those known to the Committee, the White House, and the media. The Chairman’s stewardship over the Committee’s bipartisan and fact-based investigation over the last two years speaks for itself.”
Comey’s briefing about the FBI’s Russia investigation with the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and the Senate, as well as the heads of the intelligence committees, took place March 9, 2017. On March 20, Comey confirmed publicly during a House Intelligence Committee hearing that the FBI was looking into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin — the FBI’s first official acknowledgment that they had been looking into such matters since late July 2016.
Burr’s conversation with former White House counsel Donald McGahn’s office appears to have taken place March 16, 2017, according to information McGahn’s chief of staff at the time, Annie Donaldson, provided to the special counsel’s investigation.
According to Donaldson’s notes at the time, Burr told them about the existence of four to five “targets,” identified as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and the “Greek Guy” — presumably former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, Mueller’s report surmises.
It is not entirely clear from Donaldson’s notes whether the “targets” were targets of the FBI’s probe or the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe, though the Mueller report noted that the congressional panel “does not formally investigate individuals as ‘targets.’ ”
According to Mueller’s report, Donaldson “could not rule out that Burr had told McGahn those individuals were the FBI’s targets,” though she and McGahn both told the special counsel’s office that the Senate Intelligence Committee was also interested in investigating these individuals.
But “the notes on their face reference the Department of Justice, and Comey,” Mueller’s report states, “and the notes track the background materials prepared by the FBI for Comey’s briefing to the Gang of 8 on March 9.”
The allegation that Burr may have fed information regarding the FBI’s probe to the White House stands in sharp contrast to the independent posture Burr has tried to establish while running the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation, which is widely seen as a more consistently painstaking, functional and bipartisan effort than other probes on Capitol Hill.
The Senate Intelligence Committee launched its ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election in January 2017. Since then, Burr has taken pains to establish a public firewall between himself and the White House, avoiding attending meetings at the White House and keeping his distance from President Trump, save for during a September event in North Carolina to discuss Hurricane Florence relief efforts.
Donaldson’s notes reveal that on March 12, 2017, four days before McGahn’s office spoke with Burr, the president was “in panic/chaos” and that the pressure was on to give Trump information. As Donaldson wrote in her notes, “need binders to put in front of POTUS. (1) All things related to Russia.”
A spokeswoman for Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon. Though Warner and Burr have disagreed in their assessment of certain evidence uncovered in their probe — including whether there was evidence of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials — Warner has frequently expressed confidence in Burr’s leadership of the panel’s investigation.