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Sen. Lankford: Trump tax records not relevant to Russia probe

The first public hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was announced by the House Intelligence Committee, while Senate Democrats have called for a special counsel. Republican Sen. James Lankford, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says a lot of the work will remain behind closed doors. He speaks with Judy Woodruff about the Senate’s probes and more.

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    Today, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee announced that the first public hearing on the investigation into Russian interference in the election would begin on March 20.

    At the same time, Democrats in the Senate are calling for a special counsel to investigate.

    We have heard recently from Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

    Tonight, we turn to a Republican. He is Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma.

    Senator Lankford, thank you very much for being with us.

    So, the House committee has announced when its hearing beginnings. What about the Senate? Is the House going to go first?


    Well, the House was doing an open meeting there.

    We have actually done hearings for several months now behind closed doors, as most of the Intelligence hearings are held. These are dealing with highly classified documents, procedures, people, that remain classified and should remain classified. So a lot of work will be held behind closed doors, quite frankly.

    And then we will actually bring things out when it's appropriate and when we have actually some things to be able to contribute to the national conversation.


    Are you subpoenaing witnesses?


    We are working through the process of getting witnesses. I'm not going to say whether we have to subpoena any of them at this point.

    But I would say the witnesses that we have asked for, we have been able to get access to without having to do a subpoena. But we will work through that process.

    This is very similar. I know you will remember, in December, President Obama in his press conference was asked about the administration investigation into all this process, and he said at that time, in December, the American people are going to be somewhat frustrated by an investigation that deals with intelligence, because we can't put out all the sources and methods.

    We want to still be able to guard what we're doing in foreign intelligence in the days ahead. So, we will put out what we can possibly put out, but a lot of the work will be very quiet.


    Do you think it is a good idea to look at President Trump's tax records in order to get an understanding of his possible business connections with Russia?


    So, that's been an accusation that has sat out there, but it has had no validity.

    I have yet to have anyone who has been able to point to anything, because the description there is that he had some sort of secret business dealings with Russia. No one has stepped forward to be able to actually make that accusation.

    Typically, it's people saying, hey, we want to go search. We want to go look. And I know that there are people that are frustrated that he didn't put his tax records out. And so I think this is kind of their vehicle to get it and then hopefully to be able to — once they get it in their hands, to be able to slip it out into the media at some point and leak it out.

    But, right now, there's no reason to even go do that. And there's a constitutional issue between the Congress reaching to a sitting president and requiring him to turn over personal documents.


    So, you're saying, at this point, you and others, the majority on the committee, assume the tax records are not relevant?


    Yes, I have yet to see anything that would say those are relevant.

    Now, there are a lot of issues we have got to delve into, but I have not seen that that's a relevant document for us to get.


    President Trump, in connection with all this, tweeted over the weekend that President Obama ordered a wiretap of him during the campaign in his offices in New York. He suggests that he has evidence of this.

    Are you aware of any evidence of that?


    I would just say to the White House, if they have evidence of that, they can turn that over to our committee and we will follow that up as part of our ongoing evaluation.

    But that would be something the president should turn over to Congress as we're walking through our investigation


    Do you take the president at his word, then, that there is indeed evidence? Because — I'm asking because the president has in turn called on Congress to investigate this.


    Well, it would help, obviously, if the White House turned those document over, so we could include that into our investigation.

    We're walking through a very thorough process, multiple different agencies in an extremely bipartisan way. The Intelligence Committee is not a partisan committee. We work behind closed doors. It's not showboating. We're not trying to actually get some kind of leverage. This is a national security issue.

    And this is an issue we dealt with, with Russia for decades. They have tried to manipulate elections all around the world. They go back in the United States as far as putting a KGB person onto President Carter's campaign decades ago.

    But they have never done it so overt and so aggressive as they did this time. So it is to our national benefit to get this right and to be able to have a good investigation, because this is not a partisan issue. This is a security issue for a very long time, and we have got to address it.


    So, have you asked the White House to turn such evidence over to the committee?


    Yes, I would say what you and I have just talked about before, I have said plenty of places publicly. I won't say what we have done privately. How about that?


    Do you think it was appropriate for President Trump to say this without providing that evidence?


    I think it's difficult to say that, because the natural question from every one of the American people is, really, when did that happen? How did that happen? And I think it's something the president is going to have to address in the days ahead.

    But I will allow the White House to be able to respond to that.


    Senator, there is a new story today you're aware of, WikiLeaks releasing thousands of pages of these documents which we're only beginning, really, to see what's in that material, looking at what the CIA's methods are for hacking, allegedly hacking, into everything from iPhones to cars, televisions.

    What do you know about that? And how serious a security breach could this be?


    So, let me give you a series of things to this.

    WikiLeaks is not saying where they got it. They are just saying that they have this information and that it was out there. I would remind people there's a tremendous amount of fake news out there.

    I'm not making an accusation here, but there is quite a bit out there that people create, being able to release out and to say this looks genuine and so we will put this out. Quite a few of these documents like this, we get a chance to look at later and find out they're really not genuine after all.

    So, I would caution people first to be able to jump to conclusions of this. Second, when we deal with any kind of what is actually an intelligence process, any time anyone, WikiLeaks or anyone else, releases out, gets access to this, it does two things.

    It always asks the question of, how did it come from, where did it come from at any point, if it's proved to be genuine? That has to be corrected.

    The second part of it is, it means that any adversary out there anywhere in the world, whether it be any government, whether it be any terrorist organization suddenly gets information. That is toxic to the American people.

    The folks in the intelligence community are not targeting American citizens. There are very strict, clear laws that protect U.S. persons from anyone in the intelligence.

    But I would be very frank with you. We are very aggressive to try to get information about terrorist organizations, foreign entities that mean to do us harm. And I'm glad that we do.

    If someone means to do harm to the United States, to any United States citizen, we should try to find out first, rather than react to it after the fact. And people who try to release out any methods that are out there are damaging the national security of the United States.


    Senator James Lankford, Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, we thank you.


    Thank you.

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