Last Big Trump-Russia Probe in Congress Puts Unity to the Test

(Bloomberg) -- Unlike just about everyone else on Capitol Hill, the Republican and the Democrat who head the Senate Intelligence Committee have made a determined show of bipartisanship in their Russia probe. Soon that unity will be put to the test.

From the start of the Senate committee’s probe in January 2017, Chairman Richard Burr and top Democrat Mark Warner sought to work together. They made a strategic decision to issue reports initially on topics where they could reach shared conclusions, even as their counterparts on the House Intelligence panel publicly quarreled and ultimately issued competing findings.

Last Big Trump-Russia Probe in Congress Puts Unity to the Test

As the investigation moves into its final stages, though, members will have to resolve lingering disputes, including whether to summon Trump’s son and son-in-law to public hearings. Ultimately, they’ll have to decide whether to find there’s evidence anyone close to President Donald Trump colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.

At stake is whether anyone in Congress can produce a bipartisan assessment the nation can trust, an elusive goal that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set last year.

Burr and Warner are under intense pressure from members of their parties, which are pulling in opposite directions. A Senate Judiciary probe led by Chairman Chuck Grassley and top Democrat Dianne Feinstein has devolved largely along separate, partisan tracks.

Democrats on the Intelligence Committee want their panel’s probe to delve deeper, while Republicans are eager to wrap it up well before the congressional elections in November.

“If it is purely partisan, I don’t think anybody will give it any credibility,” McConnell said. “So I hope those guys can stay together and tell us what happened and what we need to do to prevent it from happening again.”

Intelligence Findings

On Wednesday, the committee held a closed hearing to review the intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment of Russia’s actions, which found the goal was to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately to help Trump.

“Committee staff have spent 14 months reviewing the sources, tradecraft and analytic work, and we see no reason to dispute the conclusions,” Burr said in a statement. “There is no doubt that Russia undertook an unprecedented effort to interfere with our 2016 elections.”

Earlier this month, the Intelligence panel issued its first interim report on election security. While confessing its members lacked a firm grasp on the extent of hacking into voter systems in 2016, the committee said the U.S. should “clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.”

Two more reports are due over the next few months. One will explore how social media networks were exploited. Another will evaluate how President Barack Obama’s administration handled early warnings from intelligence agencies of Russian meddling.

‘Witch Hunt’

Through it all, Trump has kept up a campaign of tweets criticizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” promoted by Democrats and advanced by “tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State.”

Burr might be better-positioned to withstand pressure from Trump than just about any other Republican in Congress.

The senator from North Carolina, who won reelection in 2016, doesn’t plan to run again in 2022. He has deep credibility with his fellow Republicans, including strong backing from McConnell. He wasn’t a “never-Trumper” in 2016, sticking with the candidate even after the “Access Hollywood” tape.

Avoiding Trump

Burr, the 62-year-old son of a minister, isn’t easily bullied, whether by persistent reporters or presidential tweets, and he’s even avoided trips to the White House where Trump might be able to buttonhole him on the probe.

Unlike the raucous House probe, the Senate Intelligence inquiry has remained a buttoned-down affair with few leaks, and Burr and Warner of Virginia have worked together to keep it that way. Warner, 63, who became a multimillionaire in the telecom industry, has spoken critically of Trump but not about his committee’s work or his relationship with Burr.

The committee has “stayed out of the public and out of the media and we’ve tried to focus on what our job is without bringing politics in,” said Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho.

Flash Point

One flash point ahead: whether Burr will relent to Warner’s demands for public hearings with key players close to the president, including Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

“The decision to not have Cohen back is a metaphor for how incomplete this has been,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said. “As you know I’ve been advocating that he come for months.”

Democrats want every possible witness to be interviewed, including key players in Mueller’s investigation like cooperating witnesses Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, who may not be available to testify for months.

As Burr and Warner headed up an escalator in the basement of the Capitol complex after a recent briefing in a secure room, a reporter asked Burr if he’d relent on calling Trump Jr. and Kushner for public hearings.

“Make some news. Tell him! Make some news!” Warner cajoled from a step below Burr.

‘Show Trial’

Burr demurred. In recent months he has said he won’t turn his committee into a televised “show trial” and doesn’t know of a question to ask Cohen or others that hasn’t already been answered behind closed doors.
Democrats have privately pressed Burr not to end their probe before Mueller ends his, lest they risk look foolish if the special counsel later produces revelations from his inquiry, according to two people familiar with the committee’s deliberations.

The ultimate question of what the committee will find, including on the explosive collusion question, remains. “We have not yet reached out final decisions on that part of the investigation,” Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine told reporters Wednesday. “The committee, appropriately so, is doing the investigation in stages.”

Burr and Warner have repeatedly expressed hope that they will be able to stick together to the end but made no promises when asked Tuesday.

“You’re leaping six steps ahead,” Warner said.

“I’ll tell you when I get to the end,” Burr said.

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