House Russia probe dissolves into fight over transcripts

Panel’s top Republicans backtrack from earlier commitment to release the transcripts to public

Washington: Now that Republicans have terminated the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe, the biggest outstanding question is whether the public will ever see transcripts from dozens of its closed-door witnesses.

Republicans on the Intelligence panel are reversing their earlier plans to release those transcripts, while Democrats say they plan to attach the documents to their final report.

With Republicans and Democrats planning to release dueling conclusions in the disputed inquiry, the transcripts may represent the only chance to get an unvarnished view of the evidence compiled by the committee over the past year.

The panel’s top Republicans had said for several months that they planned to release the transcripts. But Representative Michael Conaway of Texas, who has been leading the investigation, said things had changed.

“We may not be able to do that, turns out,” he said in an interview, adding that he had been persuaded that such a move could discourage future witnesses from testifying before the committee.

Conaway’s reversal came Monday night, just after he announced the committee had found no evidence of collusion with Russian operatives by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, triggering angry condemnation from Democrats.

As recently as March 5, when Conaway was asked whether he planned to release the transcripts, he replied, “Absolutely.”

‘Deep dive’

“I hope to release as much of the underlying data as is appropriate so that folks who are interested, who want to do a deep dive, can look at what we based it on,” he said at the time. “And those who want to get into the details like that, you know, they can see what the questions we asked and the answers to that.”

Back in January, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes also said that committee Republicans planned to release all the transcripts when they issued their final report.

On Tuesday, the top Democrat on the panel, Adam Schiff of California, said that Democrats would push to release the transcripts, but the intelligence agencies would first have to scrub them for classified information.

“We intend to append to our report the complete transcripts of all the witnesses,” Schiff said. “The majority has said they support making these transcripts public. We will put to the test of whether they really do.”

It’s unclear whether Democrats could force the release of the transcripts over Republican objections.

The panel has released a handful of transcripts when the witnesses requested it, including former Trump campaign aide Carter Page and Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater Security and an informal Trump adviser who was questioned about a meeting with a Russian in the Seychelles.

The committee also voted in January to release the transcript of its interview with Glenn Simpson, who co-founded Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned an unverified dossier outlining allegations of links between Trump and Russia. That vote followed a decision by Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to release unilaterally the transcript of that panel’s interview with Simpson.

Probe ‘far from done’

According to the House Intelligence Committee, 73 witnesses have been interviewed by members and staff behind closed doors, including 54 sessions that were transcribed.

Schiff said Tuesday that committee Democrats will continue working on the Russia investigation. “Our work is far from done,” he said. He released a 21-page status report listing witnesses, documents and angles that Democrats say still need to be pursued. Those include questions about the hacking of campaign emails; possible contacts between Trump associates and Russian intermediates; and election security.

On Tuesday, Republicans said their final report would be released in the coming weeks. It will contradict assessments by the American intelligence community that Russian meddling in the election was designed to help Trump, according to a draft summary they sent out.

Democrats on the panel say they weren’t consulted on the decision to shut down the investigation. Representative Michael Quigley of Illinois said Tuesday the goal of Republicans appears to have been to protect the president, “at all costs.”

Quigley, who has been one of his party’s leading interviewers of witnesses, said some witnesses flat-out lied to the committee. In others cases, he said in a statement, Republicans “have done everything they can to defend these witnesses from answering our questions truthfully and have done nothing to corroborate a word they said.”

“Unfortunately, with our investigation coming to a premature end, we won’t be in a position to respond or hold those witnesses accountable,” Quigley said.

Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, one of the main Republican questioners, issued a contradictory statement, declaring that, “No witness provided evidence — direct or circumstantial — of collusion, coordination or conspiracy.”

Senators still working

By contrast, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own Russia inquiry, is continuing its work on a more bipartisan basis.

Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said Tuesday his committee hasn’t seen evidence of collusion with Russia yet, but made clear the members aren’t done looking.

“Right today, I don’t have anything that would necessarily say that, but we have a lot of witnesses left to talk to,” Burr told reporters.

Nor has Burr concluded whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had a preference for Trump.

“A preference can be: I hate the other person,” he said. “Until we finish the investigation, I don’t know how to answer it.”

Burr said he’s not sure when the Senate panel will be finished interviewing witnesses. When asked if he thought it could be done in the first half of the year, he said, “I’m hopeful.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee, in the meantime, still plans to release transcripts of a handful of staff interviews in its Russia investigation, including its interview with Donald Trump Jr, but that release isn’t expected this week.


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