Thursday was another banner day in investigating Russia's meddling into US elections
The Senate held a public hearing while the top Dem at the House criticized Devin Nunes
Senate investigators put on a positively normal show Thursday, pressing a series of academics and intelligence experts on how Russia disrupts elections – like last year’s presidential election.
Meanwhile, on the House side, an attempt at détente between House intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, was derailed after a report that Nunes got his highly sensitive information from two White House officials.
The White House, meanwhile, invited lawmakers to view documents they say are relevant to President Donald Trump’s focus on the identities of intelligence sources. And the Wall Street Journal reported that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has offered to testify to investigators in return for immunity from prosecution, a claim Flynn’s lawyers did not deny.
It was another big day in the world of investigators seeking answers on Russia’s interference in the US elections – here are the top five takeaways.
1. The Senate is running a serious investigation, the House is still in shambles
The members of the Senate Intelligence Committee worked through a relatively staid public hearing Thursday – even with some stunning announcements, like Sen. Marco Rubio’s revelation that his former campaign staff was targeted by hackers with Russian IP addresses. The group ticked through an almost an almost academic query of Russia and cybersecurity experts, asking policy specific questions like the models of spreading disinformation and the long history of Russia’s interference in foreign elections.
What was mostly lacking were the partisan shots from Democrats and Republicans that highlighted the House’s first public hearing last Monday – where Democrats focused almost exclusively on trying to dig out information on Trump aides, and Republicans pushed largely to try to identify who released information to the press, at one point even suggesting it may have been President Barack Obama himself.
The chasm between the two investigations could not be clearer. As the committee was working through its hearing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced that the House and Senate investigators were invited to the White House to review information that will show that Trump’s aides’ communications were picked up in intelligence collection.
One Senate intelligence source said their committee did not feel an urgent need to go to the White House to review the documents, describing the invite as a “sideshow.”
2. Hill Republicans are done talking about leaks and wiretaps
Trump may not be ready to give up on his wiretap allegations and his anger at leaks from the intelligence community to the press, but top Republicans on the Hill seem ready to move on to a new strategy when it comes to Russia.
Senate Republicans expressed deep concerns with how Russia may try to derail upcoming elections in France and Germany and ticked through somewhat apolitical topics.
Asked why the senators avoided talk of leaks Thursday, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Cornyn, dryly stated “We’re trying to avoid the circus atmosphere.”
3. The problems from Nunes’ trips to the White House are not going away
Thursday marked another day where Nunes’ clandestine trip to the White House last Tuesday to review intelligence has thrown a wrench in the House investigation. The New York Times reported that two White House officials played a role in providing Nunes the intelligence he received at the White House last week, a report Spicer would neither confirm nor deny Thursday..
Meanwhile, White House counsel sent a surprise invite to investigators, telling them they could review intelligence from the NSC at the White House. Schiff said he would gladly review it, but raised concerns that he may be walking into a show put on by Nunes and Trump. Senate investigators, meanwhile, demanded the White House deliver the documents to them.
At one point Thursday, Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, expressed broader frustrations at trying to get information for their investigation.
“The big issue that we’re grappling with, is getting the documents from the intelligence community and my patience is getting really thin,” Warner told reporters.
4. The Senate investigation may become the only game left for Democrats and some Republicans
Nunes and Schiff appeared headed toward some agreement early Thursday – with Schiff’s announcement that they agreed to host a briefing with FBI Director James Comey after the two House investigators met.
Their relationship – and the House investigation – quickly unraveled last week after Nunes announced he had gone directly to Trump with apparent evidence that his top aides were picked up in “incidental” collection by domestic intelligence. And the House investigation has been at a standstill ever since then – with a myriad of fights, including battles over who should testify at their next hearing.
Meanwhile, Burr promised at the start of Thursday’s Senate hearing that his panel would hold more public hearing as they continued their investigation.
Senate investigators are quietly working through a list of 20 witnesses and have seven professional staff dedicated to their investigation.
For this week, at least, the Senate’s looks like the most functional investigation.
5. Clint Watts strikes a nerve
Former FBI agent and counterterrorism expert Clint Watts stole the spotlight Thursday morning at the first half of the Senate hearing, delivering some stunning answers, like announcing that Trump and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort spread Russian propaganda on the campaign trail last year – whether they knew it or not.
After his testimony, Watts said he believed Trump was clearly “parroting” Russian propaganda – but was probably not aware that it’s being pushed by Russian operatives.
The Russia investigations have largely focused on the political characters on all sides so far – but Watts drew new attention Thursday.
Asked about Watts’ testimony and whether Trump and his staff knowingly spread Russian propaganda, Sen. Mark Warner smiled and told a reporter that he could not answer that question because it was likely to come up in their investigation.
“I can hear where your question is headed and at some point in this investigation we’ll, you know,” Warner told a CNN reporter Thursday, trailing off and smiling. He then said, “These are all kind of questions, where we have to go.”