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As House Panel Feuds, Senate Intel Leaders Show Unified Front on Russia Probe

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), right, and Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) hold a news conference in the Capitol on March 29, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON — As the House side of the Intelligence Committee investigation into Russia’s election-season influence operation has fallen apart, with Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) predicting no more activity until at least after the two-week Easter break, the Senate panel presented a unified front Wednesday and vowed to aggressively go where their investigation leads.

In a press conference on Capitol Hill, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said they’re taking their investigation into the breadth of Russian involvement, including any possible connections with the Trump campaign, “very seriously,” and the probe is “not something that can be done quickly.”

Burr said the committee has assigned seven staffers to the Russia investigation, compared to the three staffers who investigated Benghazi for a year. Those staff members are currently “working through thousands of raw intelligence and analytic products to, one, determine whether the process that the reviewers went through to compile their report we’re in agreement with, and to see if our confidence levels on their ratings of low, medium or high confidence in fact match.” That process is “within weeks” of conclusion.

This week the committee began scheduling interviews, inviting 20 people so far to come talk to staffers. “We anticipate inviting additional individuals to come and be interviewed and ultimately, some of those interviewed individuals may turn into private and public hearings by the committee, but, yet to be determined,” Burr added.

The chairman confirmed that President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, will be interviewed “when the committee decides it’s time to set a date, because we’ll know exactly the scope of what needs to be asked of Mr. Kushner.”

Burr added that he and Warner “work hand in hand on this, and contrary to maybe popular belief, we’re partners to see that this is completed and that we’ve got a product at the end of the day that we can have bipartisanship in supporting.”

Warner said that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal is “a weaker United Sates, weaker economically, weaker globally, and that should be a concern to all Americans, regardless of party affiliation.”

“Some of the techniques that Russia used in this election, as we find more and more, I think would send a chill down anyone who believes in a democratic process in this country or around the world,” he added. “…I know that the patriots that work in the intelligence community want us, as well, to go wherever the facts lead.”

Burr stipulated that the senators would not take any questions about the tumult at the House Intelligence Committee, sparking some laughter.

Asked if he can at this point “definitively rule out that there was no coordination whatsoever between Trump officials and Russian officials during the election,” Burr replied, “It would be crazy to try to draw conclusions from where we are in the investigation.” He did note that “by everybody’s judgment… the Russians are actively involved in the French elections.”

“I think Mark and I have committed to let this process go through before we form any opinions. And I would hope that that’s what you would like us to do. As much as we’d like to share minute-by-minute, even the snapshots we get as a team going through it are not always accurate when we find the next piece of intelligence,” he added. “So, let us get a little deeper into this before you ask us to write the conclusions. That’s clearly something that we intend to do down the road.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Finance Committee, sent a letter this week to Burr and Warner asking that the Intelligence Committee inquiry include “a thorough review of any and all financial relationships between Russia and President Trump and his associates.”

“Efforts to understand these relationships and to separate fact from speculation have been hampered by the opacity of the finances of President Trump and his associates,” Wyden wrote. “There are also serious challenges to investigations into financial relationships involving Russia where, according to the U.S. Department of State, money laundering is prevalent and corruption is a ‘major source of laundered funds, with proceeds frequently moved offshore.'”

Burr said today that his committee is “looking anywhere intelligence suggests that there might have been any type of relationship or effort to influence U.S. elections.”

The chairman wouldn’t confirm or deny whether Christopher Steele, the former head of MI6’s Russia desk and author of a pre-election dossier of alleged information about Trump and Russia, would talk to the committee.

“It’s tough to make a subpoena go outside of the United States, so we understand the limitations,” Burr said. “But I’ll only say this, that [Warner] and I are tapping into everything that we can to understand how we increase our reach in the ability to investigate and to get intelligence that could be pertinent to the investigation.”

Burr said he has not coordinated with the White House on his investigation. Nunes has been accused by some on the Hill of collaboration with the Trump administration based in part on a trip he made to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. the evening before he announced to the media that he had uncovered reports of incidental collection of people connected to the Trump campaign in non-Russia FISA surveillance of foreign targets. After that media announcement, Nunes then traveled to the White House to deliver the news to Trump and met with the press a second time.

Nunes still hasn’t shared that information with committee members, including Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and has said he won’t reveal his source to Schiff.

Burr vowed his committee’s investigation wasn’t headed for a similar divorce because of “the relationship and the trust we have.”

“All the members of the committee — I have been constantly impressed. And we know it’s a challenge, that some folks want this to go away, some folks want this to be done — us reaching conclusions tomorrow or yesterday,” Warner added. “But so many committee members on both sides of the aisle have constantly stepped up. So I think it’s not only our relationship, but it’s the fact that the committee I think has got our back and they want to see it through.”

Warner said that if the committee doesn’t “come to some joint conclusion with the manipulation that took place in the election and with the spirit of the American people saying what’s going on here, I think we would not fulfill our duty.”

Meanwhile, Nunes and Schiff are scheduled to meet Thursday.

“We can’t have a credible investigation if one of the members, let alone the chairman, is freelancing,” Schiff told MSNBC. “We can’t have a situation where the chair goes to look at evidence and basically says, I alone can see this evidence and I’m only going to share it with the president.”