GOP Chairman on Active Russia Probe: 'The Issue of Collusion is Still Open'
WASHINGTON -- The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said today that their inquiry into Russia's campaign influence operation and possible collusion "has expanded slightly" as they're still trying to speak to the former MI6 operative behind the infamous Steele dossier.
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was mum on the committee's findings thus far but repeatedly stressed that the investigation is active and driving toward a conclusion, with 25 witness interviews booked this month alone.
Asked at a Capitol Hill press conference alongside Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) if President Trump was involved in or aware of Russian campaign interference, Burr replied, "The issue of collusion is still open... we're not in a position where we we'll come to any kind of temporary finding on that until we've completed the process."
"If there was any connection, that would be pertinent to our investigation of Russia's influence in the election," Burr added.
Thus far, Burr and Warner said, more than 100 people have been interviewed by committee members or staff producing nearly 4,000 transcript pages. More than 100,000 pages of documents have been reviewed, including highly classified intelligence reports and materials from the presidential campaigns, with more to go.
Burr said interviews have included "everybody who had a hand or a voice into the creation of the intelligence community assessment" released in January that found Russia did conduct a campaign influence operation with the aspiration of helping Donald Trump. "We trust the conclusions" of the assessment, he said.
The GOP chairman said the committee has interviewed "every official of the Obama administration to fully understand what they saw, the clarity and transparency they had into Russia involvement and, more importantly, what they did or did not do and what drove those actions." He added the Obama officials all volunteered to come in and they have been "unbelievably cooperative" with the committee.
"We will come out with a finding at some point," Burr promised, noting that while there's no artificial timetable to release a committee conclusion he and Warner both want a publicly available report out prior to primaries getting started for 2018.
In "some areas," he said, "we hope very soon will reach some definite conclusion but we're not there yet; we're not ready to close it."
The chairman did say that on the issue of the memos written by former FBI Director James Comey the committee "is satisfied our investigation reached a logical end as it relates to the Russia investigation."
"We're developing a clear picture of what happened," Burr said. "What I will confirm is that the Russian intelligence service is determined, clever, and I recommend that every campaign and every election official take this very seriously as we move into this November's election and as we move into preparation for the 2018 election."
Warner said he was "very proud of this committee."
"It is taking a long time, but getting it right and getting the facts is what we owe the American people," he said, emphasizing that "we still see strains and threads that we need to pursue."
Burr said that on the Steele dossier "unfortunately, the committee has hit a wall," as committee officials have tried to meet with Christopher Steele on "several occasions" but "those offers have gone unaccepted."
"The committee cannot really decide the credibility of the dossier without understanding things like who paid for it, who are your sources and sub-sources," Burr explained. "We are investigating a very expansive network of Russian interference in U.S. elections. And though we have been incredibly enlightened at our ability to rebuild backwards the Steele dossier up to a certain date, getting past that point has been somewhat impossible... I don't think we're going to find any intelligence products that unlock that key."
"My hope is that Mr. Steele will make a decision to meet with either or both so that we can hear his side of it versus for us to depict in our findings what his intent or what his actions were," he added.
The chairman sent out the message that potential witnesses "will be compelled" to testify if the committee thinks they have valuable information to contribute to the investigation, and that will be "done in a very public way if you turn down the private offer."
"You only see glimpses of the amount of work the committee's done," Burr said of the investigation's progress. "...We will share with you when we have exhausted every thread of intelligence, every potential witness that can contribute anything to this."
He anticipated potentially bringing some Trump campaign people back before the committee as intelligence threads further develop, promising that "if somebody has not been truthful with us, we will catch them."
The Intel Committee is probing the involvement of Facebook and Twitter accounts utilized by the Russian influence operation, including the purchasing of issue-focused ads. Burr said the committee has seen "incredible access and cooperation from social media companies that have come in to be interviewed"; social media companies have been invited to testify in a Nov. 1 open hearing.
"I think at the end of the day it's important that the public see these ads," Warner said.