Members of Congress made clear Tuesday they’re increasingly willing to broach a taboo topic: possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Their emboldened approach comes amid a bombshell CNN report that intelligence officials last week presented Trump with alleged claims by Russian operatives that they have compromising information on the president-elect. According to CNN, Trump was also presented with allegations there was an “exchange of information” during the campaign between his surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.
It’s a subject lawmakers have largely avoided discussing since the presidential election, even as anti-Trump advocacy groups have sounded alarm bells about the president-elect.
But that changed Tuesday, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia’s meddling in November’s election.
The hearing followed Friday’s release of an unclassified version of an intelligence community investigation into Russia’s interference in the election, which said Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence operation to undermine Hillary Clinton and help Trump.
During the intelligence hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) noted the extensive ties between Trump advisers and the Russian government and pointed to an interview shortly after the election in which a top Russian diplomat said his government had had “contacts” with the Trump campaign.
Wyden then asked FBI Director James Comey, “Has the FBI investigated these reported relationships, and, if so, what are the agency’s findings?”
Comey refused to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, saying he could not comment publicly about such matters. His response raised some eyebrows among Democrats and led to a biting response from Sen. Angus King (I-Maine): “The irony of your making that statement here, I cannot avoid, but I’ll move on.”
This was Comey’s first public appearance since his decision shortly before the presidential election to alert Congress that his agency was examining new emails potentially related to the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails — a move that gave the Trump campaign momentum in the final stretch to Election Day.
“I would never comment on investigations, whether we have one or not, in an open forum like this,” Comey said Tuesday. “So I really can’t answer it one way or another.”
He later acknowledged he was sometimes “tone deaf when it comes to politics.”
During his exchange with Comey, Wyden urged the FBI director to provide an unclassified answer to his question before Inauguration Day, saying the American people “have a right to know” whether the FBI is investigating possible ties between the Trump team and Russia.
“If it doesn’t happen before January 20th,” Wyden said, “I’m not sure it’s going to happen.”
Several other Democrats on the committee seconded Wyden’s request.
And the intelligence panel’s ranking member, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), said the committee’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election should look specifically at possible coordination between the presidential campaigns and the Russian government.
Warner said the committee probe should not seek to “re-litigate the results of the election” but that it must be “thorough.”
“In my view, our committee investigation should focus on three broad areas,” he said, before listing them: “The Russian hacking and release of stolen information; Russia’s use of state-owned media and other means to amplify real and fake news to further their goal; and contact between the Russian government and its agents, and associates of any campaign and candidate.”
On Sunday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham also discussed the possibility of an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, suggesting that a probe might already be underway.
Asked about the possibility of a probe on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the South Carolina senator said: “I believe that it’s happening. But you need to talk to them because I don’t want to speak for them.”
In interview Tuesday, Graham said he does not know whether there’s an active FBI investigation but made clear he wants a congressional investigation into every aspect of Russia’s election meddling.
“I want to know about all things Russia, whatever they are,” Graham said. He added that it’s possible the Trump campaign could have had legitimate contacts with Russia, saying it would make sense for a presidential campaign to prepare to take over the White House by laying the groundwork for future dealings with foreign governments.
“Having contact with Russia may make sense,” Graham said. “You’re one of two groups that can take over. If there were contacts, what kind was it?”
The Trump transition team did not respond Tuesday to questions about the issue.
Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing followed last week’s release of a declassified version of an investigation by the intelligence community into Russia’s involvement in the election.
The investigation concluded Russia was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee as part of a larger influence campaign aimed, at first, at undermining faith in democratic institutions and then at helping elect Trump. The report offered no evidence for its assertion about Russia’s involvement in the DNC hack, saying its sources and methods have to be protected and were included in classified versions.
During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions was asked whether he would recuse himself from potential investigations into the Trump camp’s ties to Russia. He would not make such a commitment.
“I don’t think I’ve made any comment on this issue,” said the Alabama Republican. “I would review it and try to do the right thing as to whether or not it would stay within the jurisdiction of the attorney general or not.”
Since the election, lawmakers have largely sought to avoid making statements that would appear to question Trump’s legitimacy.
But during the campaign, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a letter to Comey, “it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government,” urging Comey to make the information public.
Now, some anti-Trump groups are seeking to raise awareness about the Trump camp’s ties to Russia.
The Democratic opposition research group American Bridge blasted Trump for his disparaging comments about the intelligence community — and his ongoing habit of tweeting praise for Putin.
“Whether Trump’s pandering to Putin is a result of Trump’s potential ties to Russian investors, impending business deals, or simply gratitude for Russia’s hacking on his behalf — it’s clear that Trump for some reason feels beholden to Putin,” said the group’s president, Jessica Mackler. “It’s a disgrace that Republicans are capitulating to Trump and standing by Trump’s attacks on the U.S. intelligence community and defense of Putin.”
A number of Trump advisers have connections to Russia.
The president-elect’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, built strong relationships with Kremlin officials during his tenure as CEO of ExxonMobil, which has sought make inroads in Russia and has lobbied against U.S. sanctions against the country.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, set to become Trump’s national security adviser, was photographed sitting next to Putin at a 2015 event in Moscow celebrating RT, the news network funded by the Russian government that the U.S. intelligence community says was a major source of anti-Clinton propaganda.
And Paul Manafort, a former chairman of the Trump campaign, did some lobbying work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.