Dems pledge height­ened scru­tiny

GOP al­lies, White House de­fend high se­crecy with Putin

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Laura King

Spurred by re­ports of ex­tra­or­di­nary se­crecy with Putin and FBI coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

WASH­ING­TON — Con­gres­sional Democrats Sun­day pledged height­ened scru­tiny of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s deal­ings with Rus­sia, spurred by news re­ports of ex­tra­or­di­nary se­crecy sur­round­ing his con­ver­sa­tions with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and the open­ing in 2017 of an FBI coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether Trump worked on be­half of the Krem­lin.

Trump’s Repub­li­can al­lies in Congress and his ad­min­is­tra­tion de­fended him, im­pugn­ing the mo­tives of fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors, in­sist­ing the White House had been tough on Rus­sia, and de­nounc­ing as “lu­di­crous” any sug­ges­tion that Trump had been com­pro­mised by Moscow.

The in­ten­si­fy­ing Rus­siare­lated furor co­in­cides with a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down that pushed over the week­end into a record­break­ing fourth week. More than three-quar­ters of a mil­lion fed­eral work­ers have been fur­loughed or are work­ing with­out pay. They missed their first pay­checks of 2019 last week.

There was lit­tle sign of any im­mi­nent break­through in end­ing the shut­down, whose ef­fects are be­ing more broadly felt with each pass­ing week.

Trump spent Sun­day morn­ing de­mand­ing on Twit­ter that Congress al­lo­cate funds for build­ing a wall on the bor­der with Mex­ico, a project Democrats ve­he­mently op­pose.

Trump called into a con­ser­va­tive talk show on Satur­day to de­nounce a New York Times re­port that in 2017, af­ter Trump fired FBI Direc­tor James Comey, the FBI opened a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether Trump was act­ing as an agent for Rus­sia.

Asked on Fox News whether he had ever “worked for Rus­sia,” Trump fumed, but did not take the op­por­tu­nity to di­rectly re­spond to the query.

“I think it’s the most in­sult­ing thing I’ve ever been asked — I think it’s the most in­sult­ing ar­ti­cle I’ve ever had writ­ten,” he said.

On Sun­day news shows, sev­eral lead­ing con­gres­sional Democrats ex­pressed deep­en­ing con­cerns over Trump and Rus­sia, af­ter the New York Times re­port and a Wash­ing­ton Post story about Trump’s ef­forts to con­ceal what was said in meet­ings with Putin over the last two years.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said on “Fox News Sun­day” that word of a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion was “alarm­ing,” and that it showed the need for the wide-rang­ing Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion by spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller to pro­ceed unim­peded.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that open­ing a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion on a sit­ting pres­i­dent shows the FBI must have had a “very deep level of con­cern.” With a new Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity in the House, freshly anointed com­mit­tee chair­men are pledg­ing to use their ex­panded pow­ers to look into Trump and Rus­sia, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to sub­poena wit­nesses and sen­si­tive doc­u­ments.

Rep. Eliot En­gel, D-N.Y., who now heads the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said his panel would hold hear­ings about what he called Trump’s “bizarre re­la­tion­ship with Putin and his cronies.”

In a state­ment is­sued Satur­day night, En­gel sug­gested that se­crecy about what was said when Trump met with the Rus­sian leader — to the ex­tent of keep­ing his na­tional se­cu­rity team in the dark — was of para­mount con­cern.

“Ev­ery time Trump meets with Putin, the coun­try is told noth­ing,” En­gel said. “Amer­ica de­serves the truth, and the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee will seek to get to the bot­tom of it.”

Repub­li­can al­lies of the pres­i­dent said the acts of con­ceal­ment de­scribed by the Post, in­clud­ing Trump’s de­mand that an in­ter­preter hand over the U.S. side’s only notes of a pri­vate meet­ing with Putin in Ham­burg, Ger­many, were well within his author­ity.

Sen. Ron John­son, RWis., said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “this is not a tra­di­tional pres­i­dent.”

“He has un­ortho­dox means,” John­son said. “But he is pres­i­dent of the United States. It’s pretty much up to him in terms of who he wants to read in to his con­ver­sa­tions with world lead­ers.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, DCalif., chairman of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said Democrats had been stymied in pre­vi­ous ef­forts to learn what was said be­tween Trump and Putin dur­ing a sum­mit last year in Helsinki, Fin­land — but sig­naled that was about to change.

“Last year, we sought to ob­tain the in­ter­preter’s notes or tes­ti­mony, from the pri­vate meet­ing be­tween Trump and Putin,” he said in a state­ment. “The Repub­li­cans on our com­mit­tee voted us down. Will they join us now?”

Schiff, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor, said, “Shouldn’t we find out whether our pres­i­dent is re­ally putting ‘Amer­ica first?’ ”

CHRIS RAT­CLIFFE/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Although Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has met with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin sev­eral times, there’s no de­tailed record, even in clas­si­fied files, of their face-to-face in­ter­ac­tions.

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