- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bitter memories from the last major congressional probe into the executive branch loom over Capitol Hill as lawmakers embark on an ambitious, divisive slate of hearings and briefings into charges that Russia meddled in the presidential race to help elect Donald Trump.

“It’s accurate to call it a Benghazi hangover,” a senior Republican staffer said. “It is fascinating but disappointing. The Republicans are going to shoot one direction, the Dems another, and then they’ll blame each other.”

The Benghazi probe, derided as one America’s longest special congressional investigations, examined the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. In the process, investigators discovered that Hillary Clinton used a private email server as secretary of state.

The discovery partially derailed Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign, cost roughly $7 million to investigate and left enough bad blood in Washington to last a generation.

Those behind the scenes of the current House and Senate intelligence committees’ investigations into Russian activities say the tension lingers. “It looks like Washington going through the motions and hoping [the Russia probe] will go away,” a senior staffer told The Washington Times.

Major obstacles include the hyperpartisan environment, the fickle court of public opinion and the complex nature of researching — and simply dealing with — highly classified and purportedly secret information.

Still, the initial shock from October’s public warning from Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper that the Kremlin was attempting to “interfere with the U.S. election process” is pushing all sides of Washington’s political and intelligence spectrum to urgently study a wide scope of accusations. These include the extent of Russian interference in the election, what Trump campaign officials knew and what might Obama-era officials have illegally leaked.

“We’re in a real struggle between authoritarianism and autocracy and democracy and representative government,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Right now, autocracy is on the march.”

“This one is one of the biggest investigations the Hill has seen in my time here,” said Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He has served in the Senate since 2005 and 10 years before that in the House.

Another matter is the Benghazi committee alumni: Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican; Mr. Schiff; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat; and Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican. Mr. Gowdy and Mr. Schiff are currently on the House intelligence committee, Mr. Cummings is working on the investigation from a different panel, and Mr. Pompeo is working across the Potomac as director of the CIA. Analysts say it is too early in the investigation to say whether they are working together or not.

It is increasingly clear that the congressional investigations will not be able to move forward without some more carping and critiquing from the White House. President Trump, in an interview that aired Sunday on NBC’s “Face the Nation,” denounced charges of collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin as a “total phony story.”

“It’s very hard to say who did the hacking,” Mr. Trump said. “With that being said, I’ll go along with Russia. Could’ve been China, could’ve been a lot of different groups.”

Start with a bang

The House investigation’s first public hearing, March 20, exploded into the headlines when FBI Director James B. Comey confirmed that his agency was actively investigating suspected Russian interference in the election.

The following day, the committee erupted into extreme contentiousness when its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, suggested that Trump associates had been under surveillance by U.S. intelligence during the campaign. The inquiry ground to a halt, and Mr. Nunes stepped down amid ethics complaints into his handling of classified intelligence.

Pundits added that it is never good when the investigator outgrows the investigation.

Democrats blasted Mr. Nunes for helping the White House divert attention from suspected links between Mr. Trump and the Kremlin.

Republicans countered by calling Mr. Nunes a sacrificial lamb who got the “genie out of the bottle” regarding suspected Obama administration misconduct, especially by National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice. Some said she led the “unmasking” of Trump officials, which she denied.

The House investigation has seemingly rebooted itself with the leadership of Rep. Michael K. Conaway, a Texas Republican who has ties to former President George W. Bush.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, House Republican, has said investigators have an opportunity to move forward. Mr. Schiff, a steady presence in political talk shows, said they are ready to get back to the investigation.

As for the White House, when Mr. Nunes recused himself from the probe, an administration spokesman called committee leadership an internal matter for the House. Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed has been mum on the subject.

Unrelated to the House but connected by subject matter, the Senate intelligence committee was at first perceived as a “more mature” operation. Its first public hearing, March 30, was a notably sober affair with heavy detail on Russian tactics used to sow chaos and disrupt order.

Debate has been growing about how much firepower the Senate probe has and whether it has the staff necessary to tackle such complex data and evidence. Reports have noted that the committee appears to be moving slower than the Senate’s CIA torture inquiry, which took years to complete.

Testimony list?

Forecasting who will testify is a beloved parlor game for Capitol Hill heavies. Last month, the Senate intelligence committee announced plans to question 20 key people, including Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who also ran Project Alamo, the Trump presidential campaign’s digital social media operation.

Beyond that, speculation swirls around several other Trump’s associates, including campaign and political adviser Roger Stone, campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page and former campaign adviser Paul Manafort.

Republicans have their sights set on Ms. Rice, occasionally whisper about Mrs. Clinton and have officially scheduled Mr. Comey and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, to appear again — this time at a closed House intelligence hearing on Tuesday.

Former CIA Director John O. Brennan, Mr. Clapper and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, who played a role in the departure of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn amid controversy over his Russia contacts, also have been requested to provide public testimony after Tuesday.

On May 8, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism, headed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, will hold a hearing titled “Russian Interference in the 2016 United States Election.” The testimony list also includes Ms. Yates and Mr. Clapper.

Sparks could fly if anyone steps out from behind the “dodgy dossier” — the 35 pages of unsubstantiated, salacious opposition research by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, that almost disrupted Mr. Trump’s campaign. Mr. Steele could be questioned, as could Glenn R. Simpson, the former Wall Street Journal reporter who runs the Washington-based firm that supported Mr. Steele’s research.

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak has meet with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and others in Washington, and lawmakers might want to learn what he knows.

Those with memories could be wary of high-profile foreign wildcard witnesses, however. In 2005, a congressional probe accused British Member of Parliament George Galloway of profiting from Iraqi oil sales. A lively Scot, Mr. Galloway flew to Washington and accused the Senate of manufacturing “the mother of all smoke screens.”

Fragmented jurisdiction

The House and Senate intelligence committees are leading the investigatory charge, but lawmakers acknowledge some confusion given the fragmented jurisdiction over the broad subject of inquiry.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism has work underway, as does the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. They have been digging into Mr. Flynn’s foreign contacts and payments.

Last week, committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, and ranking member Mr. Cummings declared that Mr. Flynn may have broken the law by failing to fully disclose his foreign financial ties — including a dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin — while getting the Trump administration security clearance. They also have expressed a desire to hear Mr. Flynn’s testimony.

Judiciary Committee Chairmen Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, has been involved in many high-stakes probes in his seven terms in the Senate. He and his heavyweight investigatory team are now examining the “dodgy dossier.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican also overseeing a probe, said he wishes there were more coordination. Add to that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, saying he would like to see a nonpartisan commission, akin to the 9/11 Commission.

Finally, House intelligence committee member Rep. Mike Quigley, Illinois Democrat, recently returned from Cyprus after investigating money laundering.

The Mediterranean island nation is a well-known Russian tax haven where Mr. Manafort had bank accounts, according to The Associated Press and U.S. Treasury officials.

“The more I learn, the more complex, layered and textured I see the Russia issue is,” Mr. Quigley said of his trip.

The public view

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has consistently resisted calls for a special prosecutor and insisted that the Senate can do the job. But the initial confusion and complexity seems to have colored the public’s perception of Congress’ abilities.

Last week, an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll showed that nearly three-quarters of Americans overwhelmingly support an independent inquiry. That figure, 73 percent, was almost 10 points above an early March CNN/ORC poll, which found 65 percent public support for a special prosecutor instead of Congress.

Still, the latest poll showed a majority of Americans, 54 percent, believe Congress should be conducting some sort of probe into contact between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.

But sentiments differ widely between Democrats and Republicans. Among Republicans, 21 percent, compared with 84 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents.

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