Par­al­lel Rus­sia probes col­lide

Mul­ti­ple bod­ies try­ing to con­duct sep­a­rate in­quiries get knot­ted up

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Erin Kelly

The three con­gres­sional com­mit­tees in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­leged Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion of­ten over­lap but rarely co­or­di­nate, cre­at­ing a le­gal quag­mire for wit­nesses and chal­lenges for spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller as he con­ducts a sep­a­rate crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The com­mit­tees have tripped over one an­other in re­cent months in the com­pe­ti­tion for wit­nesses and in­for­ma­tion.

One of the most egre­gious ex­am­ples — ac­cord­ing to four con­gres­sional aides who re­quested anonymity be­cause they weren’t au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion — oc­curred in July when in­ves­ti­ga­tors for the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee trav­eled to Lon­don to try to con­tact Christo­pher Steele, a for­mer Bri­tish spy who com­piled a dossier on Don­ald Trump and his al­leged ties to the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

Repub­li­cans on the House panel did not tell the com­mit­tee’s Democrats, Mueller or the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee that they sent two staff in­ves­ti­ga­tors to Lon­don, ac­cord­ing to

con­gres­sional aides.

The House staffers didn’t end up talk­ing to Steele, but other in­ves­ti­ga­tors fear they may have spooked the ex-spy, who has been ly­ing low since the racy 35-page dossier he com­piled on Trump be­came pub­lic in Jan­uary when it was pub­lished by Buz­zFeed. Steele com­piled the dossier for Fu­sion GPS, a U.S. firm that did op­po­si­tion re­search on Trump for Repub­li­cans and Democrats who op­posed him.

The Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee has tried to ne­go­ti­ate its own in­ter­view with Steele, whose dossier con­tained un­ver­i­fied ac­cu­sa­tions of mis­con­duct by Trump and col­lu­sion be­tween Trump and the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

The pres­i­dent has re­peat­edly de­nied any col­lu­sion by him­self or his cam­paign dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion.

“A hall­mark of con­gres­sional com­mit­tees is that they are all lit­tle fief­doms,” said An­drew Wright, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Sa­van­nah Law School in Ge­or­gia and for­mer staff di­rec­tor of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee and for­mer as­so­ciate coun­sel to ex-pres­i­dent Barack Obama. “Un­less (House and Se­nate) lead­er­ship takes a heavy hand, the com­mit­tees are not go­ing to co­or­di­nate much.”


Each in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­mit­tee — the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee and the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee — has its own unique per­son­al­ity and cul­ture and its own way of ap­proach­ing the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The House panel has been plagued by in­ter­nal di­vi­sions. Chair­man Devin Nunes, R-Calif., os­ten­si­bly stepped aside from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion but con­tin­ued to is­sue sub­poe­nas and write let­ters to ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials about the in­quiry.

Nunes an­nounced in April that he would al­low Rep. Mike Con­away, R-Texas, to take charge while the House Ethics Com­mit­tee looked into al­le­ga­tions that Nunes may have mis­han­dled clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

Yet Nunes wrote a let­ter Sept. 1 to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions threat­en­ing to hold him and FBI Di­rec­tor Christo­pher Wray in con­tempt of Congress un­less they handed over doc­u­ments about the Steele dossier.

“It sounds like there’s two in­ves­ti­ga­tions go­ing on in House In­tel — one by the com­mit­tee and one by the re­cused chair­man,” Wright said.

The Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, led by Chair­man Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chair­man Mark Warner, D-Va., has con­ducted a bi­par­ti­san in­quiry. Burr and Warner of­ten re­lease joint state­ments and talk to re­porters to­gether. They fre­quently speak fa­vor­ably of each other and have avoided par­ti­san snip­ing, at least pub­licly.

“I think (Burr) is try­ing to run a stand-up in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Wright said.

Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, and Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, the panel’s se­nior Demo­crat, some­times are on the same page and some­times not.

Tues­day, Fe­in­stein said she ex­pected the com­mit­tee to hold a pub­lic hear­ing with Don­ald Trump Jr. about his meet­ing June 2016 with a Rus­sian at­tor­ney with ties to the Krem­lin. Grass­ley was non-com­mit­tal about whether the hear­ing will take place.

Lead­ers of all three com­mit­tees said they co­or­di­nate with Mueller to avoid in­ter­fer­ing in his crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but that re­la­tion­ship has not al­ways gone smoothly.

CNN re­ported that the Depart­ment of Jus­tice re­fused to al­low two top FBI of­fi­cials to talk to the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee about Trump’s fir­ing of FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey in May. Comey was fired in the midst of the agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sian of­fi­cials. The Jus­tice Depart­ment cited Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion as the rea­son for its re­fusal.

The Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee did not give Mueller un­fet­tered ac­cess to the tran­script of its re­cent closed-door in­ter­view with Trump Jr., ac­cord­ing to CNN.


Le­gal ex­perts said Mueller won’t have to fear the most dam­ag­ing ac­tion by Congress — a grant of im­mu­nity to wit­nesses Mueller may want to pros­e­cute.

For­mer White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn sought im­mu­nity from the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee in ex­change for his tes­ti­mony, but the panel de­nied his re­quest.

Congress has been re­luc­tant to grant im­mu­nity to wit­nesses since the late 1980s, when con- gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors gave it to key fig­ures in the Iran-con­tra arms-for-hostages scan­dal, thwart­ing pros­e­cu­tors’ ef­forts to send them to prison.

“Since then, no com­mit­tees want to touch im­mu­nity with a 10-foot pole,” said Charles Tiefer, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more School of Law and the spe­cial deputy chief coun­sel for the House Iran-con­tra Com­mit­tee’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion dur­ing the Rea­gan era.

Even if com­mit­tee chair­men were will­ing to of­fer im­mu­nity, it takes a two-thirds vote of the full com­mit­tee to ap­prove such a deal, mak­ing it all but im­pos­si­ble in a di­vided Congress, Tiefer said.

Not only are tar­gets of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­likely to get im­mu­nity from Congress, they have to worry that any dis­crep­an­cies in their tes­ti­mony be­fore the three pan­els could re­sult in per­jury charges against them, said Wil­liam Tre­anor, dean of the Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Law Cen­ter and as­so­ciate coun­sel in the Of­fice of In­de­pen­dent Coun­sel dur­ing the Iran-con­tra in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“If you’re a lawyer ad­vis­ing one of th­ese wit­nesses, you’re go­ing to be stress­ing the im­por­tance of con­sis­tency,” Tre­anor said. “If wit­nesses say some­thing dif­fer­ent to each com­mit­tee, they are set­ting them­selves up for a pos­si­ble per­jury charge.”

Three com­mit­tees go­ing their own way in the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion could reach three dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions about whether Rus­sia in­ter­fered in last year’s elec­tion and whether the Trump cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sian of­fi­cials.

“If the com­mit­tees come out with dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions, I think that un­der­mines their cred­i­bil­ity,” Tre­anor said. He said the pub­lic would prob­a­bly rely on Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion as the most re­li­able one un­der that sce­nario.

“I think most peo­ple think of the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor as above the fray as a lawyer, not a politi­cian,” the dean said.

It’s not un­usual for con­gres­sional com­mit­tees to come out with con­flict­ing re­ports or to have dis­sent­ing views at­tached to the main re­port, Tiefer said.

“The re­port that’s the most sexy will be the one that gets pub­lic at­ten­tion,” he said.

“If the com­mit­tees come out with dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions, I think that un­der­mines their cred­i­bil­ity.”

Wil­liam Tre­anor, Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Law Cen­ter


For­mer FBI di­rec­tor Robert Mueller leads one of the four ma­jor in­ves­ti­ga­tions into al­leged Rus­sian med­dling.


The Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, led by Chair­man Richard Burr, R-N.C., cen­ter, and Vice Chair­man Mark Warner, D-Va., left, tries to present a bi­par­ti­san front in its in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian ac­tiv­i­ties.


Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee lead­ers Chuck Grass­ley and Dianne Fe­in­stein have an off-and-on work­ing re­la­tion­ship.


Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., stepped down from his com­mit­tee’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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