Democrats are striking out on their own this week over all but one of the congressional investigations into Russian meddling, independently releasing reports and transcripts, and attacking Republicans they accuse of intentionally undermining active probes in deference to President Trump.
Senior Democratic officials in the Senate, frustrated by what they consider a Republican campaign to discredit the law enforcement and intelligence agencies investigating the president, cleared their members to release the interview transcript of one of the Russia investigation’s most sensitive witnesses and, separately, to publish a report detailing the disinformation and intimidation tactics the Kremlin deploys against democracies globally.
In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed a letter sent Tuesday to Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), accusing him of orchestrating a campaign to bury a congressional probe into Trump’s alleged ties to the Russian government and defame the agencies investigating those matters.
Throughout the Capitol, partisan divisions have engulfed the Russia investigations, transforming what were supposed to be nonpartisan probes into political flamethrowing competitions, as each side accuses the other of going rogue. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are bracing for the partisan sniping to worsen.
“We get political up here pretty quick . . . and we’ll fight among ourselves what oversight looks like” at every stage of the investigation, Judiciary Committee member Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) predicted, “as long as there is breath in us all.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), went around committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to publish the transcript of a 10-hour closed-door interview in August with Glenn Simpson, founder of Fusion GPS, the research firm behind a now-famous dossier detailing Trump’s alleged Russia ties.
The move earned a rebuke from Grassley, who has been fixated on the dossier and last week urged the Justice Department to investigate possible criminal charges for its author, former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.
Feinstein said Wednesday that with the transcript’s release, “people can make up their own minds” about what materialized during the committee’s interview with Simpson, noting that she intended to apologize to Grassley for not notifying him first.
Feinstein also indicated she felt “pressured” to release the transcript but later retracted that statement and dismissed Trump’s assertion that her decision was politically motivated.
Increasingly, Democrats see Republicans as dedicating more energy to attacking federal law enforcement than seriously investigating the allegations that have been unearthed. For them, the criminal referral of Steele — who approached the FBI in 2016 over concerns Trump could be blackmailed or compromised, Simpson told the committee — was “a breaking point,” according to one congressional aide.
Democrats across Congress charge that the GOP has long since abandoned its commitment to investigate allegations against the president. They say Republicans’ focus on the dossier, their continued scrutiny of the FBI’s conduct during the Hillary Clinton email probe, their revived interest in how the Justice Department explored the circumstances of a 2010 uranium deal, and recent calls for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to step down over alleged bias in his team’s ranks all are attempts to block for Trump.
The criminal referral for Steele, however, was an unprecedented escalation, aides said — and one that necessitated a direct response.
“The effort plainly is to discredit the investigation before it reaches a potentially incriminating conclusion,” said Sen. Richard J. Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “To stop the investigation — but if not stop it, at least demean its credibility before charges are brought.”
Although not every Republican condemned Feinstein’s decision “to set the record straight” by releasing the Simpson transcript, the move infuriated Grassley, who accused her of undermining the investigation’s integrity.
“You want other people to voluntarily comply? And it may make them nervous. You’re giving everyone they want to talk to, they know what the questions are going to be,” Grassley said. “It weakens our chance of getting information.”
Grassley and Graham, who co-authored the letter referring Steele for a criminal inquiry and together have led the Senate charge for a second special counsel to review the FBI’s conduct, say the steps panel Republicans have taken are legitimate.
“It’s not a distraction to see how the Justice Department used the dossier, how reliable it is, because that goes to the heart of the rule of law,” Graham said.
Several House committees have launched similar probes in recent months, fueling an already bitter feud among leading Democrats and Republicans over the pace and direction of the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation. Panel Republicans, led by chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), are developing what’s been characterized as a “corruption” report about FBI officials involved in the Russia probe, while Democrats are writing a report of their own about what they see as GOP efforts to undercut and prematurely shutter the investigation.
House Democrats are incensed that the committee’s splintering probe is being eclipsed by new GOP-led investigations into the FBI’s conduct during the Clinton email scandal.
“House Republicans have chosen to put President Trump ahead of our national interests,” a group of six Democratic committee ranking members wrote to Ryan this week, suggesting he and other GOP leaders “have blocked, stonewalled, and rejected our basic requests to investigate, hold public hearings, and advance legislation” related to Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.
In response, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said it “would be irresponsible” not to “put forward the results of the investigation sooner rather than later,” in keeping with the goal of “identifying Russia meddling in our election and preventing it in the future.”
Of the three congressional panels investigating the president and Russia, only the Senate Intelligence Committee appears to have maintained bipartisan calm. Panel heads Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) continue to cooperate as they interview witnesses. But it is unclear whether their investigation will conclude soon enough to serve as a cautionary lesson for future election cycles, which experts believe will be as susceptible to foreign meddling as the 2016 presidential contest was.
That was the motivation behind a decision from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to weigh in this week as well, publishing a 200-plus page report on how Russia deploys an “asymmetric arsenal” of tactics to interfere, disinform, and compromise the integrity of democracies that challenge its interests or global standing.
The committee has not been investigating allegations concerning the president or anomalies of the 2016 U.S. elections. But panel Democrats — who failed to bring along any GOP support for their report in the year since the ranking Democrat, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), commissioned it — say it is vital that Trump heed their warnings to deter Russians from meddling in upcoming elections in 2018 and 2020.
“President Trump must be clear-eyed about the Russian threat, take action to strengthen our government’s response and our institutions, and — as have other presidents in times of crisis — mobilize our country and work with an international coalition to counter the threat and assert our values,” Cardin said.
It is unclear whether the report, which relies on public information, will have much impact beyond buttressing the historical record of Russian aggression against the West. Committee aides stressed that it is the first government report to comprehensively lay out the threat’s size and scope.
A spokesman for the committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), acknowledged he had received a copy but said “no further full committee activity is planned at this time.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.