Politico

Trump's inner circle escapes televised grillings on Russia

Among the most memorable quotes from a new tell-all book about the Trump White House is Steve Bannon’s prediction that President Donald Trump’s oldest son would be hauled before Congress and grilled on live television about his contacts with Russians.

“They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” Trump’s former political guru told Michael Wolff in his explosive new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”

But frustrated Democrats now say they’ve all but given up on their past vows to question the younger Trump before a national audience. The same goes for several other key Trump insiders whom, Democrats complain, Republicans have hidden from the klieg lights in order to protect the president.

Despite lawmakers’ pledges last year that other top Trump associates would also be questioned in open hearings before the cameras, none have done so — and, given talk among congressional Republicans of wrapping up their investigations, it looks increasingly likely they will not.

Democrats say that deprives the public of a clearer understanding of the unfolding Russia saga. It also means Trump allies who have been allowed to speak privately behind closed doors — often with staffers instead of the lawmakers themselves — have avoided the sort of spectacle that can make political history. Some of the most indelible moments from past scandals, like Watergate and Iran-Contra, occurred during televised appearances from insiders, such as Reagan White House aide Oliver North and Nixon administration lawyer John Dean, who infamously warned of “a cancer growing on the presidency.”

Last year’s dramatic testimony from former FBI Director James Comey, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former national intelligence director James Clapper dominated television and the Internet for days. Comey’s, in particular, infuriated Trump, whose advisers urged him not to tweet during the hearing. (He did not.)

Several Congressional Democrats tell POLITICO they have fought unsuccessfully to compel similar public testimony from numerous Trump associates and other participants who they believe could shed light on possible nefarious collaborations between the Kremlin and the campaign and transition team. That list includes Trump Jr. Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner and Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

As recently as September, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, told CNN she wanted Trump Jr. — who has met with both House and Senate committees behind closed doors — to testify in public “come hell or high water.”

But Republicans never approved that request — or several others, Democrats say.

In a statement to POLITICO, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, called for more open hearings with key Trump insiders, including Trump Jr., Kushner and Cohen.

“I believe that the American people would benefit from having those hearings in open session, so that they can make their own judgments about what happened in 2016,” Warner said. He also said committee members themselves would benefit from “having an opportunity to question directly some of the principal witnesses … as opposed to staff interviews.”

In a mid-September show of bipartisanship, Warner and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, vowed to call Cohen before their panel for public testimony. But when Cohen appeared before the panel and the House Intelligence Committee the following month, he did so behind closed doors.

Republicans would not address whether they still plan to hold open hearings with key Trump officials. Several said they are confident their investigations have been thorough and in the public interest, and that they are ongoing.

“The committee will continue to follow the facts where they lead,” Burr told POLITICO in a statement. Burr added that he held 10 hearings last year on the subject of “Russian interference.”

A spokesman for the Republican House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), said he would not comment given the committee’s ongoing probe.

While unmatched in drama, televised hearings can encourage grandstanding among members of Congress. And in the case of the Russia investigation, they preclude the discussion of classified information. They can also allow witnesses to see each other’s testimony, potentially allowing them to alter their own stories.

But along with declining to hold public hearings, GOP committee leaders also have rejected closed-door interview sessions with several dozen witnesses proposed by Democrats, according to three Democratic lawmakers.

Those Democrats, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell of California, also said Republicans have blocked their requests for financial documents from key players like Trump Jr., Kushner, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump himself.

The Democrats are also seeking documents from financial institutions connected to figures in the Russia saga, including Deutsche Bank, which has been implicated in Russian money laundering and has loaned nine-figure sums to Trump and to Kushner’s family business.

Democrats call such records critical to filling gaps in their understanding of Moscow’s 2016 election meddling and whether it might have involved some form of quid pro quo from the Trump campaign.

“At the end of the day, we will have done the country a disservice if we conclude the investigation without doing a thorough job, and if we are willing to make an incomplete report to the American people, or worse, one that’s inaccurate, and later have to explain when information comes to the surface why we didn’t care enough to pursue it,” said Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “But that’s where we are.”

As three congressional committees continue to probe issues related to Russia and the 2016 election, the parade of witnesses to Capitol Hill is not over yet. And it is still possible that some Trump associates would testify before the television cameras, although Democrats call that doubtful.

House Democrats said the GOP has turned to calling witnesses who will undermine the credibility of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the FBI and the Justice Department.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said both sides have been inviting witnesses but that not all have been fully cooperative. The committee is still trying to interview Kushner, he said — the one remaining witness from the Trump Tower meeting in which Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort met with a Russian lawyer who promised “dirt” on Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Democrats say their Republican counterparts are too reliant on requests for voluntary cooperation that are easily ignored. Some witnesses, including Trump Jr. and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a former Trump campaign official — have simply refused to answer key questions or even cut short interviews by saying they were done cooperating.

Others have refused to provide documents and other information, or to respond to follow-up requests for information, Schiff, Wyden and other Democrats told POLITICO.

“We need the committee to use the compulsory process, but the majority thus far has been unwilling to do so in most cases,” said Swalwell, who, like Schiff, is a former prosecutor. “And that leaves some very important questions unanswered.”

Republicans in Congress have accused their Democratic colleagues of exploiting the Russia investigation for political gain and to inflict unfair damage on Trump and his associates.

Democrats can tick off numerous other examples of avenues of inquiry that they contend have been shut down, including many that lie outside the relatively narrow purview of Mueller, who has been tasked with identifying whether any laws were broken and whether the evidence merits criminal prosecution.

In contrast, the congressional committees — especially the intelligence panels — have the broader charge of providing a public accounting of what happened between Trump associates and Russian operatives during and after the election. They include interactions that fall short of collusion or illegal activity. As a result, their final public reports will be incomplete, Democrats say.

Wyden, who sits on two committees investigating Trump-Russia issues, said Senate Republicans initially were receptive to calling in Trump associates and obtaining documents from them. Beginning in June, though, he said he noticed a sharp pullback, at the same time that Trump himself began pressuring the GOP to protect him from investigations that were closing in on those around him.

In recent weeks, Wyden has become even more suspicious of Republican efforts to shut down the Senate investigation.

Wyden noted that Wolff’s book quotes Bannon discussing the sort of financial ties between Trump and Russian nationals that Wyden has long sought to investigate in greater detail.

“You realize where this is going. This is all about money laundering,” Bannon is quoted as saying. A statement of contrition Bannon issued earlier this week did not deny or retract that quote.

But Wyden said Republicans on both the intelligence committee and the Senate Finance Committee, where he is the ranking Democrat, have thwarted him.

“The fact that we have not had any kind of public visibility on ‘follow-the-money issues’ is a very significant deficiency of the inquiry,” Wyden said. “I think Jared Kushner ought to be back answering questions in public. I think Donald Trump Jr. should be back answering questions in public, and we would obviously coordinate with Mueller on that.”

“These issues are too important to just say this is all about letting a special counsel who has a charge with respect to criminal activity tell the entire story,” Wyden said. “Because there is a much broader story that the American people are owed, and it is the committee’s responsibility to tell that story.”

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