By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican chairman of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday promised a comprehensive investigation into any direct links between Russia and Republican Donald Trump during his successful run for the White House in 2016.
The committee chairman, Richard Burr, and Mark Warner, its top Democrat, promised at a joint press conference that they would work together, in contrast to the partisan discord stirring a similar investigation by the House Intelligence Committee.
Burr was asked if the Senate panel wanted to determine if there was anything to suggest a direct link to Trump, and he responded, “We know our challenge is to answer that question for the American people.”
Trump’s young presidency has been clouded by accusations by US intelligence agencies that Russia tried to help him win, while connections between his campaign staff and Russia are also under scrutiny. Trump rejects such claims and Russia denies the allegations.
The Senate committee intends to begin interviewing up to 20 people, including Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers, starting Monday.
Burr served as a security adviser to the Trump campaign, but said he had not coordinated with him on the scope of the committee’s investigation. He insisted that he could remain objective.
Burr refused to accept the White House‘s denial of the collusion between the campaign and Russian hackers, which US intelligence officials believe favored Trump in last year’s campaign at the expense of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
“It would be crazy to try to draw conclusions from where we are in the investigation,” Burr said. “We’re going to dig a little deeper into this before you ask us to write the findings. That is clearly something we intend to do in the future.”
Burr and Warner did not comment on the investigation in the House, where the intelligence committee chairman, Trump ally Devin Nunes, has come under fire for his handling of the matter.
Many Democrats, including Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, asked Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation after he met last week with an unidentified source in the White House compound, accusing him. of collusion with the White House.
Before telling his committee colleagues, Nunes met with House Speaker Paul Ryan and then Trump, and told reporters that the source provided him with evidence that information had been collected about the team from Trump’s transition during legal surveillance of other targets.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have said that the discord surrounding the House committee has made the Senate investigation more important than ever. “Clearly in the Senate, it appears that both Democrats and Republicans are acting like adults and taking this issue seriously,” Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern told Reuters.
‘PAID INTERNET TROLLS’
Warner and Burr stressed the importance of exposing the activity of Russian hackers, which Warner said included reports of “more than 1,000 paid internet trolls” spreading negative false stories about Clinton.
Warner and Burr disagreed slightly, with Warner alluding to some difficulties in obtaining particular documents from intelligence agencies, and Burr defending them.
The two senators also indicated that they had contacted Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who was fired last month after misrepresenting meetings with the Russian ambassador.
“It would be safe to say that we have had conversations with a lot of people and it would be safe to say that General Flynn is part of that list,” Burr said.
Neither Burr nor Warner gave a timeline for completing the investigation.
“This is one of the most important investigations Hill has seen in my time here,” said Burr, who has been in Congress since 1995.
Senators said they also wanted to draw attention to what they described as Russia’s attempts to influence upcoming elections in France and Germany.