The Senate Intelligence Committee will as soon as Monday begin privately interviewing 20 people as part of its investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and any potential ties between Moscow and the Trump campaign, its leaders said Wednesday.
Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said that after those interviews he and the panel’s top Democrat, Mark R. Warner (Va.), anticipate scheduling other closed-door interviews, and potentially public hearings as well.
The two leaders stood side by side Wednesday to update reporters about their investigation in a rare joint news conference, called just as the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation appeared to be grinding to a halt.
Burr and Warner declined to comment on the political discord that has stymied the House panel’s investigation since its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), went to the White House grounds last week to meet with a secret source without telling his committee colleagues. Nunes said he viewed documents that may show that President Trump or members of his transition team were improperly identified in intelligence reports regarding surveillance of foreign targets.
Democrats have accused Nunes of coordinating with the White House to distract attention from the investigation into potential ties between the Trump team and Russian officials, and they called for him to recuse himself from the probe or step down.
While Burr and Warner did not comment directly on the House probe, they took pains to distinguish their investigation as a completely separate affair.
“We’re not asking the House to play any role in our investigation. We don’t plan to play any role in their investigation,” Burr said.
While much of the House Intelligence Committee’s political infighting has taken place in public, the Senate has conducted its Russia investigation behind closed doors — except for a public hearing in January with FBI Director James B. Comey, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and then-CIA Director John Brennan.
In contrast to their House colleagues, Burr and Warner also appear to be working closely together.
“I have confidence in Richard Burr that we together, with the members of our committee, are going to get to the bottom of this,” said Warner, his hand on Burr’s shoulder.
The different approaches being taken by the two committees is drawing notice on both sides of the Capitol. On Wednesday, a Republican congressman said the Senate should take the lead on the Russia investigation.
“The House is paralyzed on this thing,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said in an interview. “The Senate is moving forward. I think that’s the only committee that’s going to be able to bring us a report at this point.”
Dent is one of the first Republicans to openly advocate taking the investigation out of the House Intelligence Committee’s hands. Last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went a step further, saying “no longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone” and calling for a select committee or independent commission to take over the investigation.
Burr said his committee is dedicating seven staff members to the Russia investigation and is “within weeks” of completing a review of “thousands of pages” of documents provided by the intelligence community. Burr said his panel expects to request — and receive — more documents as the investigation continues.
Burr said he has not coordinated with the White House on the investigation and insisted that although he advised Trump during his campaign — and voted for him — he could conduct the probe objectively.
Most of the initial 20 interviews the committee will conduct, according to Warner, are with officials who put together a report released in January that stated Russia interfered in the 2016 elections with the purpose of trying to improve Trump’s chances of winning. Burr said that five of those interviews have been set, and the remaining 15 will be scheduled in the next 10 days.
While Warner and Burr did not disclose additional people they hoped would testify before the committee, they hinted that list may include Michael Flynn, who resigned as national security adviser over the controversy surrounding his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and his failure to fully disclose those discussions to Vice President Pence.
Another possible witness could be former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who earlier this year alerted the White House that public statements made by administration officials regarding Flynn’s contact with Kislyak were incorrect and could have exposed the national security adviser to future blackmail by the Russians.
The Washington Post reported this week that the Trump administration tried to prevent Yates from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in a meeting initially scheduled for Tuesday of this week. Nunes canceled that hearing last week.
The administration has denied it sought to muzzle Yates. Nunes said he canceled the hearing “to make time available” for Comey and Rogers to return to the committee to answer questions privately — questions that Nunes said arose after their open testimony before the committee earlier this month.
All interviews and depositions are now on hold in the House Intelligence Committee until the new hearing with Rogers and Comey takes place, Nunes told reporters on Tuesday.
Burr said Wednesday that the White House had not tried to prevent Yates from testifying before his committee, and he and Warner indicated Yates has not yet been scheduled to meet with the panel.
Burr would not commit to an interview schedule with Trump surrogates who have volunteered to appear, such as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former advisers Carter Page and Roger Stone, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. All four reportedly have had contact with Russian officials, Russian oligarchs or organizations, such as WikiLeaks, that are wrapped up in the Kremlin’s 2016 meddling efforts.
Burr said the committee would conduct interviews only when it “determines we’re ready” and only “if they’re even pertinent to the issues we need to look into.”
He added the committee “will conduct an interview with Mr. Kushner when the committee decides it’s time to set a date, because we know exactly the scope of what needs to be asked of Mr. Kushner.”
While the committee leaders declined to comment on the House panel’s probe at their news conference, Warner told reporters earlier in the day that if Nunes was onto something with the information he gleaned from his White House visit, it was a mystery to every other intelligence investigator in the Capitol.
“None of us, Republican or Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, has any idea what he’s talking about,” Warner said. He wondered aloud why, after the Trump administration denied any Russia connections and railed against leakers, Nunes would act in a way to raise suspicions about both.
“There continues to be more and more smoke about contacts between people related to the campaign and foreign officials,” Warner added.
Mike Debonis and David Weigel contributed to this report.