Report: The Senate's investigation into Trump's Russia ties has descended into a 'standoff'

Richard Burr Mark Warner
Richard Burr Mark Warner

(Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, right, and Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner.AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election and whether President Donald Trump's campaign team played any role in it has stalled amid partisan bickering and staffing problems, according to two new reports.

Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the committee's top-ranking Republican and Democrat, respectively, told reporters last month that the panel would "look at any campaign contacts with the Russian government ... that might have influenced, in any way, shape, or form, the election process."

Burr, the chairman of the committee, said the investigation "overrides any personal beliefs that I have or loyalties I might have.

"Mark and I might look at politics differently — we don't look at the responsibilities we have on the committee differently," he said then.

But more than three months into the committee's investigation, however, it has descended into a "standoff," according to Yahoo's Michael Isikoff. The committee hasn't issued any subpoenas or requested any key documents such as emails, memos, and phone records from the Trump campaign, in part because Burr "has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel's Democrats to sign letters doing so," Isikoff reported.

Democrats and Republicans also can't agree on who should be able to view the raw intelligence compiled by the US intelligence community about Russia's interference. The CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, and 14 other intelligence agencies in January released a declassified version of their report about Russia's election-related meddling.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks with reporters as he arrives for the weekly Democratic Caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTR4YK2C
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks with reporters as he arrives for the weekly Democratic Caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTR4YK2C

(Sen. Ron Wyden.Thomson Reuters)

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden "demanded" that all intelligence committee aides, rather than just a select few staffers, be allowed to review the raw intelligence, according to Yahoo. Burr, however, "who has long feuded with Wyden, refused to go along, resulting in a standoff that has badly divided the committee."

The partisan feud was foreshadowed in February when Burr, who said he voted for Trump, acknowledged that he had called reporters at the White House's request to dispute damaging reports in The New York Times and CNN about the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia during the election.

A representative for Burr declined to comment. Representatives for Warner and Wyden did not respond to requests for comment.

The committee's Russia investigation is also severely understaffed. The seven staffers who are working on it are doing so part-time, both Yahoo and The Daily Beast reported, and none has relevant legal or investigative experience.

"The biggest obstacle now for a serious investigation into Trump-Russia ties is dedicated resources for staffing," a source with ties to the committee told The Daily Beast.

A brand-new approach?

The partisan bickering and lack of resources — problems that have plagued both the House and Senate intelligence committees — have fueled calls from legal and intelligence experts to establish an independent select committee to look into Russia's election interference and whether Trump campaign associates played a role in it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee "already has a full-time oversight role" as well as "major ongoing legislative projects" and is "simply not staffed at the level or in the manner necessary to also conduct a highly complex and time-consuming investigation" like the Russia probe, Susan Hennessey, a former NSA lawyer, and Benjamin Wittes, a national-security expert at the Brookings Institution, wrote in February for Lawfare.

Congress "has a duty to publicly address major questions the political system is struggling with now in a fashion the public can absorb and process," they wrote.

"What is the president's relationship with Russia? And is there reason to be concerned about it?" they wrote. "The essential problem is that there is no current congressional mechanism with the investigative scope, staffing, and will to answer these questions in a serious fashion."

A bipartisan commission would not require Trump's consent, they added, and the congressional committees' investigations wouldn't need to be disbanded. Warner has said he would "support empowering whoever can do it right" if it became clear his committee could not "properly conduct an independent investigation."

The membership of a select committee, according to Hennessey and Wittes, "should reflect an even partisan split — or as close to it as is politically doable."

"It is essential that the committee be chaired by a person whose commitment to a serious investigation is not subject to reasonable question," they wrote. "Our nominee: Lindsey Graham."

Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said he would be open to forming a select committee to examine reports that US intelligence officials intercepted calls between Trump's associates and Russian nationals during the campaign.

"I want to make sure myself that these intercepts exist, that the communications are outside the norm," Graham told "Good Morning America" in February. "If that's the case, it's time for Congress — in my view, the Senate — to do a joint select committee where we can look at it holistically."

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