GOP senators unnerved by Trump-Russia relationship
Senate Republicans are expressing growing concerns about the relationship between the Trump administration and Russia.
While Republicans aren’t yet willing to endorse a special investigative committee, GOP senators have indicated that could change.
“Everybody is unnerved by what they read, but [they’re] not going to make decisions based on headlines,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) acknowledged that calls for a wide-ranging investigation have “gained momentum over the last 48 hours.”
“I’m not yet ready to embrace that,” he added. “It’s fair to say, not specific to a select committee, I am engaging with others to try to figure out the best way, in a full way, to understand what is happening.”
The administration’s relationship with Russia drew renewed attention Monday after the resignation of Michael Flynn as President Trump’s national security adviser.
Flynn left his post after reports that he held multiple phone calls with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions on Moscow before Trump took office.
While the White House said Flynn was ousted because of a lack of trust — he misled Vice President Pence and others about those discussions — the conversations themselves raised new questions about ties between Team Trump and Moscow, worrying Republicans in the Senate.
Republicans were already facing questions about whether Russia’s leaders have influence over Trump. Earlier this year, intelligence agencies concluded that Russia hacked into Democratic Party computer systems as part of a broad campaign intended to interfere with the presidential election in a way that would benefit Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has directed the Senate Intelligence Committee to look into Russia’s role in the presidential election, a stance supported by his conference.
Graham and his frequent ally Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for a select committee to investigate Russian meddling in the election at the end of last year but backed off when it became clear that GOP leaders were not on board.
“There’s a desire in the conference to follow the facts. There’s belief that [Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman] Richard Burr [R-N.C.] will do a good job,” Graham said. “But if this thing expands in terms of the scope of the inquiry, if you get into business relationships, you’re going to need a different” kind of investigation.
“If there’s evidence that the Russians were involved in Trump’s campaign inappropriately, then that would open up the investigation to finances,” Graham added. “Then you’d have to expand.”
Democrats are treading carefully in hopes that Republicans make their concerns public and support a thorough and public investigation of contacts between Trump and Russia.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has kept his distance from Democrats’ calls for a select committee or special commission.
Instead, he is asking that Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a staunch Trump supporter during the campaign — step aside; that all electronic contacts between Trump campaign and administration officials be preserved; and that Trump campaign and administration officials be required to testify before Congress publicly and under oath.
Democrats are also asking that the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation be made public. But one Senate Democratic aide expressed concern that the Trump administration would have to sign off on declassifying the findings of the Intelligence panel.
Trump during the campaign said he had “zero investments in Russia” but he didn’t rule out Russian investment in his ventures. Trump has also refused to release his tax returns. The House Ways and Means Committee, in a party-line vote, rejected a Democratic amendment asking the Treasury Department to turn over Trump’s records.
Max Boot, a lifelong Republican and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, laid out ties between some of Trump’s advisers and Russia in an op-ed published this summer by the Los Angeles Times.
He noted that Trump received funding from Russian investors for his businesses after American banks stopped lending to him because of past bankruptcies.
He also pointed out that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had done “multimillion-dollar deals” with Russian oligarchs, and that Carter Page, a former campaign foreign policy adviser, had business ties to Gazprom, a giant oil company owned by the Russian state.
McCain said Wednesday he wasn’t sure what to make of such reports.
“You hear all kinds of rumors and statements and things, but honestly the attention has been [on] Flynn,” he said.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Manafort was picked up on the phone records and intercepted calls of senior Russian intelligence officials.
The Times reported that the FBI was also reviewing possible contacts to Russian intelligence by Page; Roger Stone, another former campaign adviser; and Flynn, a campaign adviser whom Trump later tapped to serve as his national security adviser.
Republican lawmakers have struggled in recent days to explain Trump’s flattering statements about Putin.
A flashpoint came two weeks ago when Trump told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that he respects Putin.
When O’Reilly countered that Putin is a “killer” because of his human rights record, Trump questioned the moral standing of the United States to pass judgment on the Russian leader.
Republican leaders recoiled at the response, with McConnell declaring in a television interview, “I obviously don’t see this issue the same way as he does.”