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Schiff: Trump ‘wants to appoint a more malleable attorney general’ for Russia investigation

July 25, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Jared Kushner faced another round of questions about his contacts with Russian officials during and after the Trump campaign. William Brangham speaks with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, one of the lawmakers who questioned Kushner in the closed session, about whether Kushner’s answers were satisfactory and the possibility of Attorney General Jeff Sessions being forced to resign.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And now for a view from across the aisle, I’m joined by Congressman Adam Schiff of California. He’s the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, so, you had chance to talk to Jared Kushner today. What were your questions going in? And do you feel like he answered them satisfactorily?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-Calif.: We had a variety of questions certainly about the four meetings that he disclosed in his public statement the other day, but about a lot of other areas as well.

READ MORE: Read Jared Kushner’s prepared statement to the Senate intelligence committee

We’re looking at any of the Russian active measures that may have been employed here that we know they employ in other places. We’re looking at allegations concerning the social media campaign, whether there was any kind of cooperation or coordination through Cambridge Analytica.

We’re looking at some of the financial issues, because one of the things that the Russians do is, they use financial leverage, or sometimes they develop what the Russians call kompromat by engaging in a list of transactions with people as a way of being able to hold that over their head.

So, we went, with this witness, as we do with all, over the whole range of our concerns to do the best we can to get to the bottom of these allegations.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s talk about some of those particular allegations.

One of them was this issue of this federal disclosure form, where he failed initially to reveal that he had these meetings with dozens of foreign nationals, including these meetings with the Russians.

Jared Kushner yesterday said that this was an innocent mistake, that this was basically a rookie error. Do you buy that as an excuse?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Well, he doesn’t strike me as a rookie.

I think he’s quite sophisticated. I don’t want to characterize his testimony. We actually don’t really go into the details of testimony. I was surprised that my colleague was willing to do that.

I will say this, that the holder of that clearance, I do believe, needs to investigate this to find out whether Mr. Kushner’s explanations are satisfactory, what the circumstances are, what was disclosed, what wasn’t disclosed.

We have not yet obtained the SF-86s. So we’re really not in a position to evaluate what and when he disclosed different things. But I do believe that other individuals, not the son-in-law of the president, if they were to fail to disclose a meeting that they attended that was with people acting on behalf of the Russian government, promising dirt on a political opponent, or a meeting that wasn’t disclosed that involved setting up a secret back channel at a Russian diplomatic facility, it is very unlikely that an ordinary individual would be allowed to keep their clearance.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s touch on a few other issues that are swirling in Washington right now.

Obviously, as you have been hearing in our broadcast, the president has been very tough on Attorney General Sessions. Many people believe that the president would like him to either leave or would like to fire him.

If that were to happen, what would that do to these ongoing investigations?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Well, I think you’re right.

In this case, the president is being very transparent, at least as far as his intentions are concerned. He wants to force Jeff Sessions to resign, and, therefore, he would less have his fingerprints on hit than if he fired Jeff Sessions.

And I think the motivation is quite simple. He wants to appoint a more malleable attorney general when it comes to the Russia investigation who is not recused, who can tell Bob Mueller, you will look at this, but you won’t look at these other areas that are evidently so concerning to the president, including whether there was any money-laundering going on with the Trump Organization.

What should we do about it? If there is any effort to interfere with Bob Mueller’s investigation, we may need to reenact the independent counsel law, and make sure that Bob Mueller has a completely free hand to look at anything relevant to the Russia investigation or that arises from it, which is his charter now, but something clearly the president is uncomfortable with.

The president needs to understand this is not his prerogative to determine what the investigators are investigating when it involves his own organization.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I’m curious what you think, though. The president has said — what’s really relevant here is probably what the GOP would do.

If Sessions were fired, we heard today many, many senators and congressmen supporting Jeff Sessions, but we also heard Speaker Ryan saying that, in essence, it is the president’s job to determine who is in his Cabinet.

Do you think if this — if Sessions were to be let go, that the GOP would — there would be a revolt in his own party?

WATCH: Will Trump’s criticism have a chilling effect at the Justice Department?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: I would certainly hope that that would be the case, if he either pushes Jeff Sessions out or he were to fire Bob Mueller, that both Democrats and Republicans would rise to their institutional responsibility of insisting that an independent investigation go forth.

I think it would be a constitutional crisis. And I have to say, I’m deeply disappointed once again to hear the speaker so downplay the significance of this, because that only encourages the president to engage in conduct which is, I think, very seriously at odds with our system of checks and balances.

When we meet with emerging democracies, we always emphasize a couple things. We emphasize, when you win an election, you don’t jail the losing party. And, here, one of the gripes apparently the president has is that Jeff Sessions is not acting to try to investigate and prosecute his political opponent.

That is something you see in a banana republic, not in the United States of America. So, members of both parties need to speak out. We shouldn’t wait until there is a crisis to do so. And I hope the speaker will think better of what he just said.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Lastly, quickly, Congressman, the president clearly still chafes at this Russia investigation.

And his new communications director today seemed to indicate that the president still doesn’t believe that Russia was actually involved in trying to meddle in our election.

Given that huge chasm between what our intelligence agencies believe and what the president believes, how can this really go forward?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Well, look, there is only really one person in America that doesn’t believe the Russians were involved in hacking our election. And that’s, unfortunately, the president.

Even Vladimir Putin, of course, knows exactly what he’s done, so Russia is under no illusion about this.

What does this mean going forward? It means, of greater significance to the country, that we are not taking the steps to prepare ourselves when the Russians intervene again. And that is very serious, because there is no software patch here. We’re not going to be able to make the DNC or the RNC immune from Russian hacking. They’re too good, and it’s too difficult to defend.

The only real defense the country has is to bring the country together to forge a consensus that, no matter who it helps or who it hurts, we will reject foreign interference. And our president is simply not doing that, and this is exposing us to further harm.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Congressman Adam Schiff of California, thanks very much.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Thank you.

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