Dems vow to step up scrutiny of Trump on Kremlin dealings
He slams question about whether he acted for Moscow
WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on 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 president called into a conservative talk show on Saturday night to denounce a report in the New York Times that in 2017, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether the president 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.
The president went on to assert that no president has taken a harder stance against Russia than he has.
“If you ask the folks in Russia, I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other ... probably any other president, period, but certainly
the last three or four presidents.”
Trump’s claim was disputed by Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said almost all the sanctions on Russia arose not in the White House but in Congress, due to concerns by members of both parties about Moscow’s actions. Warner accused the White House of being very slow to put the penalties in place.
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 past 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 wideranging 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 into a sitting president shows that the FBI must have had a “very deep level of concern.”
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, R-Wis., said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump “has unorthodox means. 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.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is traveling in the Middle East, dismissed the possibility that Trump acted on Russia’s behalf, calling it an “absolutely ludicrous” notion.
However, Virginia’s Warner said it was “curious” that as investigations were beginning in 2017, “you had Vladimir Putin policies almost being parroted by Donald Trump.”
Asked on CNN whether he thought Trump ever worked on behalf of the Russians and against American interests, Warner said: “That’s the defining question of our investigation, and the Mueller investigation. “You had Trump say only nice things about Putin. He never spoke ill about Russia.”
Also Sunday, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said he will force a vote in the coming days on the Treasury Department’s decision to ease sanctions on three companies connected to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week defended the decision, saying the companies are undergoing a major restructuring to “sever Deripaska’s control and significantly diminish his ownership.” He said Deripaska himself and any companies he controls remain under sanctions.
Schumer, however, contends the Russian oligarch maintains significant influence on these companies, including the aluminum manufacturing giant Rusal, and said it’s important the sanctions remain in place while Mueller’s investigation proceeds. Deripaska has figured into the investigation due to his ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Warner predicted some Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate would join Democrats in voting to override the removal of these sanctions.
President Donald Trump said Sunday on Fox News that “If you ask the folks in Russia, I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else.” That claim was disputed by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.