Several congressional panels are investigating Russia's role in last year's election
The Senate judiciary committee and Senate intelligence are interviewing witnesses
The Senate judiciary committee dug into questions of Russia’s interference in the US elections Wednesday – but delayed hearing from one of its key witnesses amid a procedural row spurred by the continuing health care fight in the Senate.
The panel had planned to hear from Bill Browder, the CEO whose former lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, became the namesake for legislation at the center of a June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, a Russian lawyer and others.
But Senate judiciary committee Chairman Chuck Grassley announced Wednesday that Browder’s appearance was being delayed from Wednesday to Thursday morning because of the “two-hour rule,” a delay tactic often employed by Senate Democrats as they have fought Republicans on a series of measures.
It was just the latest twist in a single committee hearing that at one time looked like it could be a blockbuster production – but instead fizzled Wednesday.
Grassley and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat, had originally invited Trump Jr., Manafort and Glenn Simpson, a former journalist whose research firm helped put together the “Steele Dossier” on President Donald Trump, to testify Wednesday.
But behind-the-scenes negotiations, including a subpoena against Manafort and Simpson, spurred the three key players in the Russia story to agree to testify in private before the committee – albeit not Wednesday.
Instead, lawmakers dug into questions about the enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act – which requires lobbyists doing work for foreign nations and groups to disclose their work. But questions and comments still veered back to Russia’s meddling in the election.
“I don’t know a time when the United States feels more invaded, and by this I mean, 21 states’ election systems were pierced in this last election, we believe, by Russia. And that’s a pretty sovereign interference,” Feinstein said Wednesday. “It seems to me that the time has really come to tighten this act up, to know who is in the country, to see that they formally apply, to see that if they violate, its prosecuted, and that it has become a priority for us.”
Knitting these many strings together on the surface is the hearing’s title, “Oversight of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and Attempts to Influence US Elections.” But the stronger thread has been an aggressive push by Grassley and Feinstein to get answers to a slew of questions that have sprung up publicly as the many Russia probes have unfolded.
Behind the scenes, a sort of witness tug of war has developed between the Senate judiciary committee and the Senate intelligence committee, as well as the House committees running their own investigations. Caught in the middle, at one point, was Manafort, who faced a subpoena from the Senate judiciary committee after agreeing to talk to the Senate intelligence committee, but not immediately concurring to a judiciary interview.
But Grassley and Feinstein ultimately succeeded in winning a private interview with Manafort – as well as access to his documents.
“Faced with issuance of a subpoena, we are happy that Mr. Manafort has started producing documents to the committee and we have agreed to continue negotiating over a transcribed interview,” the two lawmakers said in a joint statement Tuesday evening. “It’s important that he and other witnesses continue to work with this committee as it fulfills its oversight responsibility.”