The indictments of two former Trump campaign officials and emergence of a third ex-Trump adviser who appears to be cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election could throw a wrench into Congress’ parallel Russia probes.
That’s in part because neither of Congress’ intelligence committees has met yet with George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump’s campaign who admitted on Monday to lying to the FBI about his efforts to connect Russian entities with Trump’s team. It’s unclear whether he or either of the two indicted former campaign officials — Paul Manafort and Rick Gates — can or will continue engaging with the Hill.
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The Senate intelligence committee had already interviewed Manafort once before his indictment, and investigators there had been in talks to interview Papadopoulos, but the former campaign aide, according to one source, “wasn’t making himself available” for an interview. The House intelligence committee has yet to interview Papadopoulos, Manafort or Gates, and is “still in discussions with them,” an aide said Monday.
Papadopoulos had previously provided documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, including at least some of the emails cited in his plea deal, the source told POLITICO.
The Senate panel was not formally notified by Mueller’s team or the Department of Justice before the Manafort and Gates indictments were made public.
Intelligence Committee officials weren’t overly surprised that Manafort was indicted — a long foregone conclusion to many. But there was surprise that it had happened so fast.
“I’m a little bit surprised they’re playing it as early as they are,” one Intelligence Committee official said of the Mueller probe.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said Monday that Mueller’s move wouldn’t change his panel’s investigation.
“The special counsel has found a reason on criminal violations to indict two individuals, and I will leave that up to the special counsel to make that determination. It doesn’t change anything with our investigation,” he said in a statement. “We received documents from and had interest in two of the individuals named, but clearly the criminal charges put them in the Special Counsel’s purview.”
No matter the impact of Monday’s stunning escalation of the Mueller probe, senior Democrats were determined to keep up the pressure on Republicans to shield the special counsel from threats to his investigation as it draws closer to the White House.
Democrats spoke out after a week of GOP pushback against the Mueller and congressional probes, which touch on potential collusion between Russian entities and Trump associates of President Donald Trump, as well as a call for Mueller’s resignation by the conservative editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.
“The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “If he does so, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders waved away the issue at a news conference on Monday, saying, “The president said last week … there’s no intention or plan to make any changes in regard to the special counsel.”
Senators have introduced two bipartisan bills designed to protect Mueller should Trump attempt to fire him, although Republican leaders are unlikely to move such legislation to vote without a clear, new threat to the special counsel’s job from the White House. In the House, where pro-Mueller bills have not gained momentum, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has previously advised Trump to “let Robert Mueller do his job.”
Asked about the indictments in an interview with a local Wisconsin radio station Monday, Speaker Paul Ryan said, “I really don’t have anything to add other than nothing is going to derail what we’re doing in Congress.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, echoed Schumer on Monday with a call to “protect the independence of the special counsel, wherever or however high his investigation may lead.”
Warner added in a statement that lawmakers in both parties “must also make clear to the President that issuing pardons to any of his associates or to himself would be unacceptable, and result in immediate, bipartisan action by Congress.”
At the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has recently opened new inquiries into the sale of a Russian uranium company while Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state, ranking Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California seized on the Monday indictments and plea deal to urge Congress to keep its own Trump-Russia probes going.
“Bob Mueller’s criminal investigation is important, but Congress has a responsibility to get to the bottom of this and work to make sure it never happens again,” Feinstein said in a statement. “That’s why it’s so vital that the congressional investigations continue.”
Feinstein split from Grassley last week to begin work on her own bill designed to deter attempts by foreign nationals to influence U.S. elections and said on Monday she would send more unilateral investigative requests along the lines of five expansive letters she sent on Friday. Grassley, for his part, sent several letters seeking more information about Russian interference in the 2016 election as part of a larger group of new oversight inquiries last week.
Republican lawmakers were largely muted when the news first broke, with many not commenting at all in the first hours after the charges.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) was an exception, and he called for his colleagues to support Mueller.
“Months ago I & many other Republicans vowed to support Mueller investigation & allow it to work its way through process to get the facts,” he tweeted shortly after the charges were announced.
“In light of today’s indictments, we must continue to support and allow the integrity of the process to work.”
In recent days, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) has also professed respect for Mueller but has said in TV interviews that he’s “in an increasingly small group of Republicans” who share that sentiment.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) responded to the indictments and plea deal by renewing their long-standing call for an independent commission to examine Russia’s disruption of the 2016 election, including the potential involvement of Trump allies.
“Even with an accelerating Special Counsel investigation inside the Justice Department, and investigations inside the Republican Congress, we still need an outside, fully independent investigation to expose Russia’s meddling in our election and the involvement of Trump officials,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Rachael Bade contributed to this report.
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