The top Democrat on the Senate committee investigating President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia says he has “grave concerns” about the independence of the probe following a report that the panel’s Republican chairman helped the White House knock down negative news stories.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Saturday he called Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and CIA Director Mike Pompeo to express his concerns.
But Warner did not go so far as to say he was giving up on the Intelligence Committee’s probe, which many Democrats consider the best hope for getting to the bottom of the ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow given that GOP leaders have made clear they won’t agree to a select committee or independent commission.
“I will not accept any process that is undermined by political interference,” Warner said in a statement. “I am consulting with members of the Intelligence Committee to determine an appropriate course of action so we can ensure that the American people get the thorough, impartial investigation that they deserve, free from White House interference.”
Warner also issued a warning to his GOP counterparts, saying that if he determines the Intelligence panel “cannot properly conduct an independent investigation, I will support empowering whoever can do it right.”
His warning is a nod to the many Democratic lawmakers and a few Republicans who have called for an independent commission or select committee to investigate the issue.
On Friday night, The Washington Post reported that the White House had enlisted intelligence officials and key members of Congress — including Burr and House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — to call media outlets to challenge allegations about repeated communications between Trump associates and Russia.
The House Intelligence Committee is also investigating communications between Trump aides and Russia.
A spokesman for Nunes, Jack Langer, said the congressman had already been reaching out to media outlets about the issue and contacted an additional reporter after the request came from the White House.
“Chairman Nunes made inquiries into the allegations published by the New York Times and couldn’t find evidence to support them,” Langer said. “So he told that to multiple reporters, and then a White House aide asked if he would speak to one more. So he spoke to that reporter as well, telling that person the same thing he told the other reporters.”
Burr also told the Post he reached out to news outlets and said he felt he was doing nothing wrong, adding: “I felt I had something to share that didn’t breach my responsibilities to the committee in an ongoing investigation.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, blasted the White House’s behavior, saying intelligence professionals “are not there to serve as the President’s PR firm.”
“For its part, the intelligence community must resist improper efforts like these by the Administration to politicize its role, and in Congress we will have to redouble our vigilance to ensure that the community is never compelled to do otherwise,” Schiff said.
Also on Friday night, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called for a special prosecutor to oversee an investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russia, saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions should not be involved.
It’s unclear if Issa, who was a major supporter of Trump during the presidential campaign, was aware of the Post’s report when he made the remarks on HBO’s “Real Time” with Bill Maher.
“You cannot have somebody, a friend of mine Jeff Sessions, who was on the campaign and who is an appointee,” Issa, the former chairman of the House oversight committee, said. “You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office to take — not just to recuse. You can’t just give it to your deputy. That’s another political appointee.”