Mark Warner: ‘We’ve Had New Information That Raises More Questions’ (POLITICO Magazine)

Mark Warner: ‘We’ve Had New Information That Raises More Questions’

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Congress late last year received “extraordinarily important new documents” in its investigation of President Donald Trump and his campaign’s possible collusion with the 2016 Russian election hacking, opening up significant new lines of inquiry in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe of the president, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) says in an exclusive new interview.

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Warner, the intel committee’s top Democrat, says “end-of-the-year document dumps” produced “very significant” revelations that “opened a lot of new questions” that Senate investigators are now looking into, meaning the inquiry into Trump and the Russia hacking—already nearly a year old—will not be finished for months longer. “We’ve had new information that raises more questions,” Warner says in the interview, an extensive briefing on the state of the Senate’s Trump-Russia probe for The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on world affairs.

Warner also warns about a “coordinated” attack by the president and “Trump zealots” in the House of Representatives to undermine the legitimacy of the investigations against him, an effort Warner says includes the president’s threats to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and other officials as well as a secret Republican memo alleging “shocking” FBI surveillance abuse against Trump that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is now threatening to release. Warner calls out Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in arguably more explicit terms than any Democrat has yet, saying he has read the underlying classified material used in the memo and that Nunes misrepresented it as part of a McCarthyite “secret Star Chamber” effort to discredit the FBI probe of the president.

“We’re seeing this coordinated effort to try to impede the investigation,” Warner says. The Nunes memo, which is apparently drawn from information contained in the same late-2017 document dumps that has caused the Senate panel to expand its inquiry, is based on “fabrications” and “connecting dots that don’t connect,” Warner asserts.

My interview with Warner—and his revelation of the Senate panel’s expanded investigation into Trump—came a few hours before the New York Times reported that the president had threatened to fire Mueller last summer, leading to days of headlines over whether Congress should step in to legislatively block Trump from being able to oust the special counsel investigating him. Warner and other Democrats, joined by a few Republicans, have been urging such a step for months. Although GOP congressional leaders are unlikely to permit a vote, many senators in both parties have signaled to Trump in recent days that a move against Mueller would amount to an explosive escalation. Firing Mueller “would be the end of his presidency,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has been an on-again, off-again ally of Trump’s, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Beyond the understandable focus on Mueller’s job security, both disclosures struck me as getting at a perilous truth for the Trump White House one year into his presidency: Not only is the Russia investigation not going away, but questions associated with it are multiplying, whether it’s the new evidence Warner says his committee must now investigate or the revelation that the special counsel himself is on the long list of those, like fired FBI director James Comey and the current deputy FBI director and deputy attorney general, that Trump has made very clear he wants out.

At a minimum, the fact that we continue to learn so much new information after so many months of investigation is a reminder of why it’s important to be cautious about the endless punditry analyzing the prospects of a probe whose substance we still know very little about. For now at least, questions like the ones endlessly debated on cable TV — Will Trump be impeached if the House is retaken by Democrats in November? When and how will Mueller deliver a final report on the allegations, and will he seek the unprecedented step of trying to indict a sitting president? — remain almost pointless speculation.

And they will continue to be until the basic concerns we started the investigation with are no longer hanging out there, shadowing the Trump White House with serious doubts that clearly infuriate the president: Did Trump or any close advisers actively collaborate with the Russians who sought to sway the 2016 race on his behalf? Did the president or others seek to cover up their dealings with Russians – or promise them concrete actions, like lifting U.S. economic sanctions on the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in exchange for Kremlin help? Once in office, have the president or members of his inner circle tried to obstruct the investigations into those questions?

We may not have the public evidence yet to definitely resolve those questions, but Warner offers a provocative rationale for why it is we are now seeing such a stepped-up campaign by Trump and his defenders against those who seek to provide us the answers.

“Mueller is getting closer and closer to the truth,” Warner tells me, and “closer and closer to the truth is getting closer and closer to the president.”

***

The Senate Intelligence Committee that Warner leads along with Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina has remained a relative outpost of bipartisanship amid the escalating partisan catcalls over Russia, and throughout our nearly hour-long conversation about the investigation, I found Warner, a successful tech entrepreneur before he became a politician, careful to say what he and the committee know — and don’t know — about the explosive Trump-Russia allegations.

On the revelations contained in the latest document dumps, for example, Warner says the panel still cannot attest to their “veracity or truthfulness” and is now “trying to either corroborate or not” by calling up to a dozen new witnesses. He also says that the allegations contained in the dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and made public last year remain neither “proven nor, conversely, disproven” despite the extensive investigations. “That’s pretty amazing,” he says, “because as long as that sits out there, there’s going to be a cloud that hangs over this administration.”

Warner says he and the Senate panel remain focused almost exclusively on the initial questions surrounding the Russian election intervention and alleged collusion; the senators have decided that questions surrounding possible Trump obstruction of justice, “because it falls into criminality,” should remain largely in the “purview” of Mueller.

While he acknowledges that the Senate probe may have months more to run and that no conclusions have been reached on the key question of Trump and collusion, Warner tells me that a bipartisan majority on the panel is now in agreement on the basic facts of the case aside from that. “Virtually every member of our committee, Democrat or Republican, would agree,” he says, that Russia sought to intervene in 2016 on Trump’s behalf with “traditional spycraft” of stealing information and then releasing it, along with not-so-traditional methods of using social media platforms, compromising state voting systems and offering “dirt” on Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton.

“Senator Burr and my Republican colleagues, they’ve looked at the same facts I’ve looked at, and we may have areas where we disagree on conclusions, but we don’t disagree on facts,” Warner says, still a noteworthy conclusion given that President Trump himself has continued to cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russians did in fact seek to influence the presidential race to Trump’s benefit.

Still, the spiraling investigation by the senators as well as Mueller suggests there is much we still don’t know about a case that already has, as the Watergate author Elizabeth Drew put it in an interview for The Global Politico last spring, “more characters than a Russian novel.”

In our conversation, Warner reels off a few of the characters whose actions he finds particularly significant – and about which he did not know when the probe started – including Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s efforts to build a Trump hotel in Moscow, efforts that continued up to the campaign; the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign manager, and Russians claiming to have damaging information on Clinton; and the claim to an Australian diplomat by a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser that he’d been offered information by the Russians.

But mid-investigation, much confusion still abounds. Consider the case of that former foreign policy adviser. The little-known George Papadopoulos emerged as a surprise figure in the Mueller investigation late last year, when it was revealed he had decided to cooperate in the probe and plead guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI. The president’s defenders have characterized him as little more than an obscure junior official, “the coffee boy,” as one Trump ally put it. But in an interview last week, Papapdopoulos’s fiancée spoke out for the first time and insisted that, far from being a coffee boy, he would emerge as a “John Dean”-like figure in the Trump case, offering damning revelations akin to those from the Nixon White House counsel that helped bring down that president.

So which is it, I ask Warner: coffee boy or John Dean? “I don’t know any coffee boy in any campaign that I’ve been involved with,” the senator quickly replies, “that had direct communications with the absolute senior leadership with the campaign.”

Still, it will be months if not years before we know for sure what George Papadopoulos – or Donald Trump for that matter — knew and when he knew it.

In the meantime, the spectacle on Capitol Hill is sure to continue. In the Senate, Warner and Burr are negotiating over which witnesses to call next, and Warner makes it very clear he does not believe the Senate panel can finish its work without public testimony from key players like Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and lawyer Michael Cohen. Over on the House side, meanwhile, Republican leaders may allow a vote as soon as Monday on whether to publicly release the controversial Nunes memo – despite fervent objections from Trump’s own Justice Department that doing so could harm national security.

None of which has all that much to do with the basic, jaw-dropping question that started the investigation off in the first place: just how and why Russia succeeded in intervening in an American presidential election on behalf of one of the candidates. With the 2018 midterm elections set to begin little more than a month from now, Warner says that’s still the big story, even if it’s in danger of being lost in a drumbeat of partisan name-calling.

“If you add up all of the money Russia spent interfering in our election; if you add on what they spent in the French elections, where Facebook took down 50,000 sites that were connected to Russia because they’d seen the Russian intervention, if you add up what they spent on the Dutch elections, where the Dutch hand-counted all of their ballots because they were so afraid of Russian intervention,” he tells me. “You add all that up and you’re still talking about less money than the cost of one new F-35 airplane.”

Russia, Warner says, is not the only U.S. adversary in the world that can figure out a smart investment in America when it sees one.

Susan Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist and host of its weekly podcast, The Global POLITICO. Subscribe to The Global POLITICO on Apple Podcasts here. Subscribe via Stitcher here.

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January 29, 2018 at 08:50AM

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