- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2018

The House Intelligence Committee this week will explore one of the Russian election meddling saga’s most burning questions when it interviews former Trump strategists Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowski about whether onetime campaign aide George Papadopoulos was wearing a recording device after secretly agreeing to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

The latest moves in the troubled effort by Capitol Hill come as committee Republicans are also privately venting anger that the voluntary testimony of Mr. Bannon and Mr. Lewandowski represents little more than “scalp-hunting” by the House intelligence panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff.

Mr. Bannon, a onetime top White House strategist now on the outs with President Trump, “will be testifying because the Democrats want to use him for their messaging purposes,” a GOP congressional source told The Washington Times.

Efforts by California’s Mr. Schiff and other House Democrats to investigate relationships between Papadopoulos and Trump campaign staff, the source added, were intended to confuse the timeline of what initially spurred the FBI to look into possible Trump-Russia collusion during the 2016 campaign — and minimize the role played by the notorious Democratic-funded anti-Trump dossier compiled by a former British spy.

Some argue Mr. Papadopoulos helped ignite concerns of Russian collusion by confiding to an Australian diplomat in May 2016 that he had learned that Moscow had obtained embarrassing material on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. A few months later, in July 2016, Australian intelligence passed the Papadopoulos tip to the U.S. government after leaked Democratic emails began appearing online.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI in October, revealing at the time that he had already been cooperating with Mr. Mueller’s probe.

Papadopoulos’ status as “cooperating witness” in the Mueller probe has many in Washington wondering if that meant the 30-year-old energy consultant wore a wire to record private conversations after his secret arrest in July.

Committee investigators are also eager to ask Mr. Bannon and Mr. Lewandowski — neither of whom have been publicly accused of any wrongdoing — to detail their relationship with Papadopoulos.

While the White House dismissed him as a low-level volunteer, last month Papadopoulos’ finance, Simona Mangiante, told ABC News that he played an integral role in the 2016 campaign and was “constantly in touch” with high-level officials in the Trump campaign.

Mr. Bannon and Mr. Lewandowski have long insisted they, and the Trump campaign, are completely innocent of any collusion with Russia.

“I have nothing to hide,” Mr. Lewandowski told WABC Radio on Sunday. “I didn’t collude or cooperate or coordinate with any Russian, Russian agency, Russian government or anybody else, to try and impact this election.”

In August, Mr. Bannon left the White House after a turbulent tenure helping Mr. Trump channel his populist agenda. He has since had a major falling out with the White House. The committee will interview him Tuesday.

Mr. Lewandowski is slated to appear before the committee this Wednesday or Thursday. An aggressive, charismatic field operative who helped shape the early days of Mr. Trump’s insurgent campaign, Mr. Lewandowski was forced out in June 2016 by veteran GOP political operative Paul Manafort, who served as Trump campaign chairman.

Mr. Manafort was later ousted himself and has since been indicted by Mr. Mueller for money laundering — activities that are outside his work for Mr. Trump.

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