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Warner talks Trump, Sessions, Russia investigation

Mark Warner met with Special Counsel Robert Mueller Wednesday afternoon, a day after an explosive interrogation in the Senate Intelligence Committee of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as the congressional investigation into Russian hacking in the 2016 election deepens.

mark warnerWarner (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Intel Committee, and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee chair, issued a rather bland joint press statement after the meeting with Mueller: “We had a constructive meeting with the Special Counsel today and we look forward to future engagements.”

Earlier Wednesday, Warner addressed the latest in the hacking investigation, and the role that President Trump seems to be playing in delaying the efforts of Congress to get to the bottom of what happened, in an interview with Augusta Free Press.

“One of the senators yesterday was saying, We’ve not seen any smoking guns yet. Well, part of that is that we’ve not talked to any of the people that were affiliated with the Trump campaign that might have had extensive contacts with Russians,” Warner said. “Because everything has been superseded by the outrageous fact that the president fired the FBI director. The fact that the president is not cooperating with this investigation means it’s going to take longer, and it means it adds more things to look at.”

The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Mueller, a former FBI director appointed as special counsel after the May 9 firing of FBI director James Comey, is now investigating allegations that the president may have obstructed justice in directing Comey to end his inquiry into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, then dismissing him after Comey requested more resources for the bureau’s look at the Russia hacking.

In his interview with AFP, Warner conceded that the Russia investigation has been “pretty all-consuming” in terms of his time on Senate business, and he said he doesn’t see “any immediate daylight, because we’ve got all the people, the names like the (Paul) Manaforts and (Carter) Pages and (Roger) Stones, all these names that were, early on, the focus of a lot of attention.”

“We’ve still got the documents to review, we’ve still got the subpoenas out, there are others that are being added. That was where I thought we’d be right now. Talking with those folks, instead of dealing with the fallout of the Comey firing,” Warner said.

The Comey firing was a key focal point in the questioning of Sessions, who has come under scrutiny for his role in the dismissal in the wake of his decision to recuse himself from having a role in oversight of the Russia investigation.
Warner pressed Sessions on his role in the Comey firing, though Sessions controversially declined to answer many of the questions that he was asked by Democrats on the Intel Committee, walking a constitutionally interesting fine line in so doing.

“I was disappointed, not surprised, but disappointed, by the attorney general trying to have it both ways,” Warner said. “If you want to exert executive privilege, exert it, and then we can test. If Congress doesn’t acknowledge executive privilege, and we saw in the last administration the House literally sue Eric Holder on executive privilege, or if he feels that there’s information that’s classified, the Intelligence Committee respects classification. But he chose neither one. He said he didn’t want to respond so he could give the president retrospectively the ability to claim executive privilege.

“I don’t think that has merit. These so-called long-standing Department of Justice procedures … we had some pretty good lawyers on that committee, and I don’t think any of them had heard of that. So my hope is that he will respond to our questions, show us his rationale.”

Warner, a former governor of Virginia, said he understands the need for the president to be able to have candid conversations with advisors on policy matters.

“But this falls into a grayer area, in my mind. Because you’re talking about a president who appears, by his own words, to have fired the FBI director because he was concerned about the FBI director’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election, and Russian meddling that may have involved Trump affiliates,” Warner said. “To my mind, that falls in a different category than the normal course of a president discussing the ins and outs of his healthcare repeal with a Cabinet official. That, to me, has, and I’m not making legal judgments here, but that to me has more the notion of protection of work product than the idea of the president potentially firing somebody because he didn’t like the direction an investigation was headed.”

Warner was also troubled by Sessions’ admission that he has not requested any briefings as attorney general on the status of the Russia investigation. Sessions, before he was nominated to serve as attorney general, had the ability to take part in all-senator briefings on the conclusions of the intelligence community into the hacking investigation, Warner said.

To Warner, there is no question that Russia attempted to exert influence on the 2016 U.S. elections, as Comey also stated unequivocally in his testimony to the Intel Committee last week.

“I do think it is clear that there is Russian interference in the election, and equally troubling, Russian interference in a number of states’ voting processes,” Warner said. “Let me make clear: no evidence that they tampered with voting turnout numbers or the results. But if they were trying to ping on voter files, that ought to be a concern. And one of the things I want to try to do is see if we can get more of just the kind of numbers of states that were attacked declassified, not to embarrass any state, but just to warn people. We’ve got elections this year in Virginia, we’ve got lots of elections next year.”

The stalling tactics being employed by the president and his team are making it hard for Congress to learn exactly what Russian interests did and what can be done to prevent future election hacking efforts.

“To me, it also appears, at least from the president’s tweets, that one of the most serious things here is the president still calls this fake news and a witch hunt,” Warner said. “How do you take the unanimous opinion of the intelligence community, reject it, and then see more and more reports of Russian interference? You see Russian interference in the French elections, which has been well-documented. We’re going to see it in the German election. And it appears that the only person who is not taking this seriously is the commander-in-chief.”

Story by Chris Graham

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