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Senate Russia Probe Founders Amid Partisan Bickering

More than three months after the Senate Intelligence Committee launched its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — including allegations of collusion by associates of President Trump — the panel has made little progress and is increasingly stymied by partisan divisions that are jeopardizing the future of the inquiry, according to multiple sources involved in the probe.
 Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr and ranking member Sen. Mark Warner. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The committee has yet to issue a single subpoena for documents or interview any key witnesses who are central to the probe, the sources said. It also hasn’t requested potentially crucial evidence — such as the emails, memos and phone records of the Trump campaign — in part because the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel’s Democrats to sign letters doing so, the sources said.

“The wheels seem to be turning more slowly than the importance of the inquiry would indicate,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 commission and former Watergate prosecutor, one of a number of veteran Washington investigators who have begun to question the lack of movement in the probe.

As Congress returns from its spring recess this week and Trump approaches his 100th day in office, the panel has no further public hearings scheduled, even as the House Intelligence Committee — torn by its own partisan wrangling and internal turmoil — shows some flickering new signs of life. 

The result has caused growing frustration among the Senate committee’s Democrats, who are privately complaining the probe is underfunded, understaffed and too timid in pushing to get to the bottom of one of the most explosive political stories in years.

“I would like to see this moving more quickly,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., a member of the panel, said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking minority member on the panel, has repeatedly said the Russia investigation “may very well be the most important thing I do in my public life.” And until now, Warner has sought to project an appearance of bipartisan unity with Burr, portraying the probe as a methodical inquiry that will follow the facts wherever they lead.

But Warner’s handling of the probe has led to grumbling among some of his Democratic colleagues that he has been too reluctant to challenge Burr and press for more aggressive action — for fear of undercutting the perception that he and the Republican chairman are working cooperatively together. “He’s been afraid to even bring up the S-word,” said one source familiar with the details of the investigation, referring to the panel’s authority to issue subpoenas for documents.

More than three months after the Senate Intelligence Committee launched its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — including allegations of collusion by associates of President Trump — the panel has made little progress and is increasingly stymied by partisan divisions that are jeopardizing the future of the inquiry, according to multiple sources involved in the probe.

The committee has yet to issue a single subpoena for documents or interview any key witnesses who are central to the probe, the sources said. It also hasn’t requested potentially crucial evidence — such as the emails, memos and phone records of the Trump campaign — in part because the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel’s Democrats to sign letters doing so, the sources said.
 In January: President Trump speaks by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“The wheels seem to be turning more slowly than the importance of the inquiry would indicate,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 commission and former Watergate prosecutor, one of a number of veteran Washington investigators who have begun to question the lack of movement in the probe.

As Congress returns from its spring recess this week and Trump approaches his 100th day in office, the panel has no further public hearings scheduled, even as the House Intelligence Committee — torn by its own partisan wrangling and internal turmoil — shows some flickering new signs of life. 

The result has caused growing frustration among the Senate committee’s Democrats, who are privately complaining the probe is underfunded, understaffed and too timid in pushing to get to the bottom of one of the most explosive political stories in years.

“I would like to see this moving more quickly,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., a member of the panel, said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking minority member on the panel, has repeatedly said the Russia investigation “may very well be the most important thing I do in my public life.” And until now, Warner has sought to project an appearance of bipartisan unity with Burr, portraying the probe as a methodical inquiry that will follow the facts wherever they lead.

But Warner’s handling of the probe has led to grumbling among some of his Democratic colleagues that he has been too reluctant to challenge Burr and press for more aggressive action — for fear of undercutting the perception that he and the Republican chairman are working cooperatively together. “He’s been afraid to even bring up the S-word,” said one source familiar with the details of the investigation, referring to the panel’s authority to issue subpoenas for documents.

There are signs Warner’s patience is starting to wear thin. Warner “is not satisfied with the pace of the investigation and he doesn’t think it’s moving fast enough,” a committee source tells Yahoo News. “He would like to have seen more hearings and more interviews with witnesses.”

Asked for comment, Rebecca Watkins, chief spokesperson for Burr, emailed: “We won’t have any comment on internal committee processes.”

There are signs Warner’s patience is starting to wear thin. Warner “is not satisfied with the pace of the investigation and he doesn’t think it’s moving fast enough,” a committee source tells Yahoo News. “He would like to have seen more hearings and more interviews with witnesses.”

Asked for comment, Rebecca Watkins, chief spokesperson for Burr, emailed: “We won’t have any comment on internal committee processes.”

But behind the scenes, while suffering none of the public embarrassments of the House inquiry, the Senate probe has been fraught with its own conflicts. Initially, its progress was stalled because it took weeks to work out an agreement with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and other U.S. intelligence community officials to provide Senate committee staffers access to “raw intelligence” documents that formed the basis for the Jan. 6 “assessment” that Russian president Vladimir Putin authorized a multifaceted campaign during the 2016 election to sew distrust among the American electorate, discredit Hillary Clinton and boost the chances of Trump, sources said.

The issue was finally worked out, but only a limited number of staffers assigned to the probe were allowed to review the thousands of pages of material: three Republican and two Democratic aides, plus the respective staff directors for each party, both of whom had other standard oversight duties. (Of the two Democrats assigned by Warner to the probe, one was a junior staffer who is also going to law school; another Democratic investigator has since been hired and is expected to begin work next month, a committee source said.)

The limited access infuriated some senators, notably Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who demanded that their intelligence committee aides also be given the opportunity to review the same material. But Burr, who has long feuded with Wyden, refused to go along, resulting in a standoff that has badly divided the committee.

That standoff has spilled over into other areas. The committee early on sent letters to key witnesses — such as Flynn, Page, former campaign manager Paul Manafort and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone — to preserve all documents that might be relevant to the investigation. One such letter was also sent to White House counsel McGahn, who previously served as chief counsel to the Trump campaign and has authority over its records.

But the committee has still not sent any follow up letters even asking for their documents — much less issued a subpoena demanding they be turned over. Although letters requesting the material were drafted by Democratic staffers, Burr has so far declined to sign them, leaving the panel’s investigators powerless to review key material necessary to pursue the issues of possible collusion.
 FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers testify during a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing concerning Russia. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Moreover, the committee also hasn’t even approached potentially key witnesses to schedule interviews with them. Manafort, Stone and Page have all publicly volunteered to be questioned by the committee staff. But so far, the committee seems stuck in a version of Catch-22: It has yet to follow up on those offers, in large part because it doesn’t want to interview them until it has reviewed their documents and emails, which the committee hasn’t asked for. (Flynn, through his lawyer, also has offered to talk but only until he first receives immunity — a step the committee is in no rush to even consider.)

So what has the committee been doing for three months? The five staffers assigned to the case have been methodically reviewing the classified raw intelligence documents that formed the basis for the Jan. 6 assessment — and that, in turn, has lead to the discovery of more documents that are potentially relevant, sources say. It also has compiled a lengthy witness list that staffers have begun to winnow down.

But some veteran Washington investigators say the committee is frittering away one of its most important assets — a sense that is aggressively moving to get to the truth.

“It’s important to show some momentum and appear to have some momentum,” said Michael Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor who participated in the Iran-Contra investigation and later served as Justice Department inspector general. “If there’s radio silence for a few months, you lose a valuable asset.”

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