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Congress grapples with investigating Trump’s Russia ties

February 27, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes told reporters he's seen no evidence of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials. But Nunes drew criticism after a report revealed that he agreed at the White House's request to help counter news on that topic. Judy Woodruff talks to Sen. Mark Warner about calls for an independent investigation into Russian meddling in the election.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn our focus now to claims that the Trump presidential campaign was in contact with Russian intelligence officials, and new concerns over how they should be investigated.

REP. DEVIN NUNES, R-Calif.: We still have not seen any evidence of anyone that’s from the Trump campaign or any other campaign for that matter that’s communicated with the Russian government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes met reporters this morning, and responded to questions over his committee’s investigation into whether President Trump’s associates had ties to Russia during the presidential campaign or after.

Nunes drew criticism after a Washington Post article revealed that he agreed to talk to a reporter at the White House’s request about a New York Times story that alleged Trump associates spoke with Russian intelligence.

REP. DEVIN NUNES: That story was a little odd, I thought, because if you ask me to contact the White House and said, hey, could you set me up with somebody at DOD or the intelligence agencies, I would say sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Senator Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, were also reported to have been contacted by the White House press secretary to make calls about the story.

Nunes acknowledged the investigation was ongoing, but said he wanted to be careful not to jump into a witch-hunt, comparing it to the Red Scare of the 1950s.

REP. DEVIN NUNES: We can’t have McCarthyism back in this place. We can’t have the government, the U.S. government or the Congress, legislative branch of government chasing down American citizens, hauling them before the Congress as if they’re some secret Russian agent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the White House, spokesman Sean Spicer defended his request to see CIA Director Pompeo and the Congressional Intelligence Committee chairs and, echoing Nunes, declared there was no story.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: We have heard the same people, the same anecdotes, and we have heard reports over and over again. And as Chairman Nunes very clear today, he has seen nothing that corroborates that. So at what point you got to ask yourself, what are you investigating?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Among those still not convinced, former President George W. Bush, who told NBC’s “Today Show” that the questions about links to Russia need to be answered.

Amid growing calls for an independent investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. election, I spoke earlier with Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

I asked for his reaction to the White House enlisting U.S. intelligence community leaders and congressional Intelligence Committee chairs to help counter news stories about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia’s intelligence officials.

SEN. MARK WARNER, D-Va.: Well, my reaction was grave concern and an awful lot of frustration.

We are at the early stages of our investigation. We have bipartisan Intelligence Committee staff today working over reviewing basic intelligence. We have been at this now for a couple of weeks. We’re making progress.

For anyone to try to interfere at this early stage of an investigation just makes no sense. Let’s take for a moment, even if the White House’s position was correct, by asking these figures to interfere and lobby, they then potentially color the results of this investigation.

I have no idea why they would try to interfere at this point, when this investigation is ongoing. The good news is, Judy, though, that we have heard, over the last couple of days, from a number of the members of the committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, folks like Senator Rubio and Senator Collins, who have all said very strongly they continue to support an investigation that’s bipartisan, that will follow the facts wherever they may lead, that won’t allow outside interference like the White House and others.

And as long as we have got a strong majority of the committee that’s committed to that process, I think we’re the best place and best forum to go forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said today, Senator, was, he said, this was simply in response to the request from these reporters. The reporters were asking for the White House version.

The White House said, in order to give you any corroboration, it was the only way they could do that was to send them to these other officials.

SEN. MARK WARNER: One of the things about an Intelligence Committee investigation is that you don’t talk about the ongoing processes before you have a finished product.

We’re really still at the early stages. There are enormous amounts of information that has to be gone through. We have seen massive Russian intervention in the election. We have seen hacking. We have seen a number of indications of individuals affiliated with Mr. Trump who’ve had contacts with Russian officials.

We need to find the extent of those contacts, the content of those contacts. So, somehow, asking folks to interfere on a press story before this investigation is completed, to me, is both inappropriate, improper and, frankly, weakens the White House’s case dramatically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator, that sounds different from what Devin Nunes, who is the House Intelligence Committee chair, said today. He said there is no evidence that he knows of now of any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials.

SEN. MARK WARNER: Judy, there are — the one thing I think that has been made clear is there are ongoing investigations.

Anyone that jumps to a conclusion while there are ongoing investigations and tries to make a definitive fact and definitive statement I think does a great disservice to the American people. There is nothing more important than, when we have got the potential of a foreign nation, not only interfering in our election process, but lord knows what else.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, two other quick things.

Chairman Nunes went on to say that this shouldn’t become a witch-hunt. Is that a legitimate concern here?

SEN. MARK WARNER: Listen, what the chairman of the House has done by trying to interfere in the investigation really raises huge concerns.

As somebody who has to go back and continue to make the case to my Democratic colleagues that this investigation is going to be done straight up, in an honest and straightforward way, obviously, Chairman Nunes’ actions don’t help that cause.

And, you know, and if this ends up defaulting into some kind of partisan food fight, at the end of the day, what happens is, the American public don’t get the answers they deserve.

I have said from the outset, Judy, there’s nothing I have done in my Senate career that’s more important than this investigation. It has to be done right, it has to be done bipartisan, and it has to follow the facts wherever they lead.

And when you have got particularly an administration like this one, which has, unfortunately, in the president, disrespected the intelligence community so many times during the campaign, it’s more important than ever that the intelligence community feels that there is somebody that has got their back and that they can do their job in an honest and truthful way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator, your Democratic in the Senate Senator Dick Durbin is saying there needs to be an outside independent commission looking into it.

SEN. MARK WARNER: If I find that we can’t get access to the information we need, yes, I will be willing to call for that.

But, let’s remember, if we were to pass an independent commission, it would require passage of the House, passage of the Senate, and a significant by this president.

Who would say that that independent commission would truly be independent? It would also take that commission literally months to get up to speed.

We have people working today in a bipartisan fashion trying to get the facts to get to the bottom of this. I think the American public deserve answers sooner than later. And my fear is the independent commission, one, would it truly be independent? Would it truly get passed and be signed by this president?

And then it would take literally months to get it set up and established. I think, as long as we can continue to do this with the majority of the Intelligence Committee committed to doing this bipartisan, independent, and making sure we get the facts, this is still the way to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Mark Warner, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, we thank you.

SEN. MARK WARNER: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for the record, we reached out to every Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. They either declined or didn’t respond to our request.

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