“We don’t have any authority to go to any campaign and request information that one would need to do an investigation,” Sen. Richard Burr said. | Getty
The development raises questions about who in Congress, if anyone, will investigate the matter.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Thursday his panel’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election would not look into possible contacts between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
Burr’s comments raise questions about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s piecemeal approach to investigating Russia’s role in the election — and who in Congress, if anyone, will investigate allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia once the president-elect takes office.
McConnell has rejected calls for a select committee with a broad mandate to investigate the issue, or an independent commission with subpoena power. The Kentucky Republican has instead ordered individual Senate committees to run their own separate investigations within the confines of their committee jurisdictions.
“We don’t have anything to do with political campaigns,” Burr said Thursday as he left a closed-door briefing with intelligence officials on Russian meddling. “We don’t have any authority to go to any campaign and request information that one would need to do an investigation.”
Asked who should investigate the issue, Burr responded: “I would imagine that would probably be the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
The senator downplayed the possibility of coordination between Trump’s associates and Russia, dismissing as rumor a 35-page “dossier” of unsubstantiated allegations posted online Tuesday by BuzzFeed News.
“The only accusations that there were contacts are in a document that the media has had for over three months and until this week nobody printed because they couldn’t find anything that fact-checked anything in the 35 pages,” Burr said. “This is speculation, and I don’t suggest that the FBI chase speculative things, and I certainly don’t include that in a committee process that I take very, very seriously.”
The unsubstantiated dossier, though, is not the only evidence of ties between Trump’s team and Moscow. Several of the president-elect’s current and former associates have links to Russia — including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who lobbied for a pro-Russian politician in Ukraine, and incoming National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who was photographed in 2015 sitting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a celebration in Moscow for the Russian-funded television network RT.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister also said shortly after the November election his government had been in touch with members of the Trump campaign — though, as Sen. Lindsey Graham pointed out, there are legitimate reasons why a presidential campaign might be in contact with a foreign government.
“Obviously, we know most of the people from [Trump’s] entourage,” the Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told the state-run Interfax news agency in November.
A spokeswoman for Burr, Becca Watkins, said the chairman’s remarks were intended to clarify the separate roles of his committee and federal law-enforcement agencies.
“Sen. Burr is saying that the jurisdiction for the committee is to oversee the intelligence community, and investigate the behavior of foreign intelligence services,” Watkins said. “The committee is looking into Russian active measures, not investigating American political campaigns. That would be an investigation for the FBI.”
She added: “If in the course of our investigation we discover anything that falls outside the committee’s mandate, we will refer that information to the appropriate entities — be they other congressional committees or government agencies.”
There are growing calls in Congress, though, for a wider investigation into Russia’s role in the election with a larger scope.
Sen. Mark Warner, the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said Tuesday he wanted possible contacts between Russia and the presidential campaigns to be part of the committee’s ongoing probe.
“In my view, our committee investigation should focus on three broad areas,” the Virginia senator said at a committee hearing, listing the third area as “contact between the Russian government and its agents, and associates of any campaign and candidate.”
Warner said after the intelligence briefing on Thursday that his views remain “the same as I’ve talked about.”
Meanwhile, Republicans Graham and Sen. John McCain have joined Democratic leaders in calling for a select committee to investigate the issue, though the pair backed off after McConnell made clear he wouldn’t agree to it. The majority leader’s office declined to comment, instead pointing to McConnell’s past comments on how the Senate should investigate Russia’s meddling.
For his part, McCain said Thursday he planned to speak to Burr about why he wasn’t looking into the possibility of contacts between Russia and the campaigns.
“I got to talk to him and ask him why he made the decision he made before I can comment on it,” said the Arizona senator. Asked who would investigate the matter if not the Senate Intelligence Committee, McCain responded: “Honestly, I don’t know.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), an Intelligence Committee member, said he views the panel as the best forum to conduct a successful probe of Russia’s hacking efforts, using open and closed sessions where necessary.
No matter whether alleged coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign is ruled out of the committee’s purview, Manchin added, any thread of inquiry with “concrete” proof behind it and “tied to credible sources” will end up coming into play.
“It’ll come in no matter whether you want it or not,” Manchin said in an interview. “Hopefully [a thorough investigation] will weed out all the crap. It’ll weed out all the nonconfirmed, the rumors, and things of this sort.”
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, this week said the unsubstantiated allegations that Russia sought compromising information on Trump make it more urgent for Congress to conduct a broad investigation into the issue.
“These reports, though unverified, warrant serious investigation by a select committee in Congress or a commission of public officials and private citizens with subpoena power to investigate them — led by people of integrity like Gen. Colin Powell and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor,” Durbin said in a statement.
Last month, McConnell said he believes the Senate Intelligence Committee “is more than capable of conducting a complete review” of Russian interference in the election.
“I have every confidence in Chairman Burr that he will review the matter in a responsible way,” he said, noting that other Senate Committees, including the Armed Services panel, would also have roles in investigating the issue.
In the House, a spokesman for Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Jack Langer, said some parts of the “dossier” published by BuzzFeed could be examined as part of the panel’s review of the intelligence community’s Russia assessment.
“We’re just beginning our work and that hasn’t been decided yet,” Langer said.