House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff threatened to subpoena FBI Director Christopher Wray for what he says is the bureau’s failure to inform Congress about the status of a counterintelligence investigation into links between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.
“We’re running out of patience,” said Schiff Wednesday, who added he’s been seeking the information for months and has been rebuffed, despite requirements that the FBI keep Congress apprised of counterintelligence matters. He said the FBI has issued boilerplate non-responses to his inquiries and that he’ll issue a subpoena soon if they don’t produce more information.
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“If we don’t get an answer soon, we’ll be issuing subpoenas,” he said.
Schiff’s comments followed a hearing of the Intelligence Committee that focused on evidence gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller that point toward concerns that Russia may have compromised — wittingly or unwittingly — members of Trump’s orbit. Though Mueller concluded he couldn’t establish a conspiracy between Trump campaign figures and Russia, his report was largely silent on the counterintelligence efforts.
The hearing, featuring a panel of veteran national security experts, laid bare the deep partisan rupture in Congress over Mueller’s report. Republicans on the panel asked virtually no questions about potential counterintelligence risks but trained their energy on poking holes in the FBI’s handling of the probe.
GOP members of the panel questioned whether figures identified in Mueller’s report as key links between the Trump campaign and Russia were really assets of the West. They suggested the FBI botched its counterintelligence and surveillance procedures in the conduct of their investigation of these links. And one, Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas, even suggested Obama administration figures intentionally “turned a blind eye” to Russian interference in the 2016 election, believing it would help Hillary Clinton.
Schiff, at one point, accused GOP colleagues of effectively urging people to “ignore everything Mueller has to say … because they have problems with aspects of the [surveillance] application.”
Even Republicans’ own selected witness, former prosecutor Andy McCarthy, at times undercut accusations that have become articles of faith to Trump and his allies.
McCarthy said he didn’t think any FBI officials or Justice Department figures acted “in bad faith” when they sought to surveil a Trump campaign associate. He said they made “mistakes,” but not intentional ones. “I don’t think anyone was acting in bad faith on the FISA warrant,” he said. Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill have argued that the FBI’s pursuit of the warrant on Page is proof they were seeking to damage Trump’s campaign in the run-up to the election. But there, too, McCarthy said otherwise.
“I don’t know that there’s evidence [FBI officials] were trying to scuttle the Trump campaign,” he said.
McCarthy also said that Trump campaign figures should have called the FBI when a Russian lawyer visited Trump Tower to ostensibly provide information meant to damage Clinton. And he contradicted the notion — espoused by Trump — that the Obama administration took no action to counter Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“They took some investigative steps,” McCarthy said, though he added that they may have proven insufficient because the administration was concerned about appearing “to be putting their thumb on the scale in an investigative way versus how do we stop what Russia is doing. You can certainly argue about the value judgment.”
Democrats spent Wednesday’s hearing working methodically to elevate Mueller’s evidence that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and sought to benefit from it. They leaned on a panel of veteran national security experts to delve into each facet of Mueller’s findings – from the interactions between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower to Paul Manafort’s sharing of polling data with a Russia-linked associate to the elder Trump’s effort to build a tower in Moscow.
Republicans asked no questions on these subjects but instead questioned decision-making at the FBI – from former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to delay informing Congress about the Russia investigation, to the bureau’s reliance on former British spy Christopher Steele’s memos to obtain a surveillance warrant against Trump campaign associate Carter Page and the decision to decline to inform the Trump campaign that some of its officials were being investigated.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the committee, ripped Mueller’s report as a “shoddy political hit piece” that “provided no useful information” about why it labeled certain figures as Russian assets, including Joseph Mifsud, whose interactions with Trump campaign associate George Papadopoulos led the FBI to open its investigation.
“Mueller stops short of calling Mifsud a Russian agent,” Nunes said. “My big concern about Mifsud is he was a Malta diplomat, he worked closely with the Italian government. He’s described in the press as a Western intelligence asset — by some in the press.”
Mueller’s report describes Mifsud as “a London-based professor who had connections to Russia and traveled to Moscow in April 2016.” He allegedly told Papadopoulos before it was known that Russians had obtained emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
No other Republicans on the Intelligence Committee went as far as Nunes in slamming Mueller’s findings, but they repeatedly wondered why the FBI didn’t share information about its investigation with Trump’s campaign.
“If someone in my campaign was doing something nefarious … I would sure hope I was informed,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio).
Schiff said the panel’s next hearing would focus on Russia’s intrusion into local election systems and whether the FBI followed Mueller’s leads.
Though the Republican push largely aligned with Trump’s mantra to keep the focus on investigators he has accused of leading a “witch hunt” against him, at times, they too broke from his arguments.
Nunes, questioning the FBI’s decisions to investigate former national security adviser Michael Flynn or his interactions with Russia’s ambassador, said he didn’t think former secretary of state John Kerry should be investigated for his own interactions with Iranians. Trump, a month earlier, said Kerry should be prosecuted for those meetings.
After Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) questioned decision to delay briefing Congress on the existence of the Russia probe until early 2017 – days before he made the probe public — Schiff corrected her to say her timeline was incorrect.
“The representative is not accurate,” he said, but added he was unable to provide details.