The leaders of the Senate intelligence committee have pledged that their investigation of Russian interference in last year’s presidential election will be independent and bipartisan, as a bitter dispute continues to cloud a similar inquiry in the House of Representatives.
In a good-humoured and tactile show of unity on Wednesday, Republican senator Richard Burr and his Democratic counterpart Mark Warner told reporters that they owe it to America, and the world, to “follow the intelligence wherever it leads”. Their first public hearing takes place tomorrow, with former NSA chief Keith Alexander being the most prominent witness.
Burr, the committee chairman, initially deflected questions about alleged collusion between Trump’s associates and Moscow, insisting: “We would be crazy to try to draw conclusions from where we are in the investigation.”
But asked whether Trump was directly involved, he acknowledged: “We know that our challenge is to answer that question for the American people in our conclusions.”
US intelligence agencies found that Russian-backed hackers meddled in last November’s election with the intention of hurting Hillary Clinton’s campaign and helping Trump. Emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, were hacked and released via WikiLeaks.
Warner gave an insight into the extent of the covert Russian operation and said it was important to put the public on alert because of a fundamental threat to democracy, in the US and abroad.
This included reports of “upwards of a thousand paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect taking over a series of computers, which are then called a botnet. They can then generate news down to specific areas … in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, where you would not have been receiving – whoever your vendor may have been – ‘Trump versus Clinton’, but instead ‘Clinton is sick’ or ‘Clinton is taking money from some source’. Fake news.”
Warner added: “If you Google ‘election hacking’ during the period leading up to the election and immediately afterwards, you wouldn’t get Fox or ABC or New York Times. What you get is four out of the first five stories that popped up were Russian propaganda: RT News, Sputnik, others.”
The two senators said they also wanted to publicise Russia’s attempts to influence upcoming polls in Europe. Burr said it was safe to assume the Russians were “actively involved” in the forthcoming French election, adding: “We feel part of our responsibility is to educate the rest of the world what’s going on because it’s now into character assassination of candidates.”
Burr, who served as a security adviser to Trump’s campaign, confirmed that he voted for the Republican nominee but said he had not coordinated with the White House on the reach of the investigation, which he described as one of the biggest of his congressional career.
He said: “This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads it, so it is absolutely crucial that every day we spend trying to separate fact from fiction and to find some intelligence thread that sends us to the factual side of all the names and all the places that you in this room have written about.”
The bipartisan display was notably different from the ongoing strife at the House intelligence committee, where Democrats have called on chairman Devin Nunes to recuse himself over his close relationship with the White House.
Burr, a senator for North Carolina, said: “Mark and I work hand in hand on this and, contrary to maybe popular belief, we’re partners to see that this is completed and we’ve got a product in the end of the day that we can have bipartisanship in supporting.”
Burr said the Senate committee this week made 20 requests for individuals to be interviewed. Five already have interviews scheduled. Some may be held in public, some in private. No date has yet been set for Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who has acknowledged meetings with Russians during the transition.
Another potential witness is retired general Mike Flynn, a former Trump campaign aide and national security adviser. Burr said: “We’ve had conversations with a lot of people. You would think less of us if General Flynn wasn’t on that list.”
Burr and Warner said they would issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify if necessary but acknowledged it was “tough” to compel individuals from overseas to attend because subpoenas would not necessarily carry any weight in foreign jurisdictions. It was reported on Wednesday that the committee could seek to interview Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence operative who compiled the dossier that alleges a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The stakes are high for the Senate investigation – and a separate one by the FBI – because of disarray on the House committee. Adam Schiff, its top Democrat, has made clear his concerns about the conduct of Nunes, including a mysterious visit last week to the White House grounds to review classified material. But Warner expressed confidence in Burr, arguing that Russia’s attempt to “hijack” the election went beyond party affiliation.
Warner, a senator for Virginia, said: “We’re here to assure you, and more importantly the American people who are watching and listening, that we will get to the bottom of this. Richard and I have known each other a long time and the chairman and I both have a serious concern about what the Russians have done and continue to do around the world.”
He added: “Some of the techniques that Russia used in this election, as we find more and more, would send a chill down anyone who believes in the democratic process in this country and around the world.”
Despite his impatience to get answers, Warner said it would be necessary to take time. “Getting it right is more important than getting it done quickly.”
The senators said the committee was nearing completion of a review of thousands of documents related to the investigation and would hold its first public hearing on Thursday.
Earlier, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said he was still looking into who cleared Nunes into the White House, as well as who met with the House intelligence chief to examine classified information pertaining to the investigation into Russia.
“I asked preliminary questions; I’ve not gotten answers yet,” Spicer told reporters, before growing characteristically testy at the line of questioning.
“It’s interesting that there seems to be this fascination with the process,” Spicer said.
“[It’s] ‘how did he get here, what door did he enter’ … as opposed to what I think it should be,” Spicer said, pointing to the “substance” of Nunes’s information.
Spicer added he was not “personally” aware of who acted as Nunes’s source from within the White House for stating, without evidence, that the Obama administration surveilled Trump aides during the transition.
While acknowledging the incident had created a perception of impropriety, the White House spokesman stood by Nunes amid calls for the House intelligence chairman to recuse himself from his committee’s inquiry into Russian interference in the election.
“There is nothing that I see that is problematic in him conducting an investigation,” Spicer said.