This week, news of the Russia investigations centered largely on special counsel Robert Mueller, on whom the White House and some Republican lawmakers have been attempting to cast doubt. Mueller met last week with the Senate Intelligence Committee and followed up this week with the Senate Judiciary and House Intelligence Committees. The purpose of these meetings was to establish boundaries and informational jurisdiction between the concurrent Russia investigations. In Congress, the most noteworthy Russia investigation hearing this week was from Jeh Johnson, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary, who testified to the House Intelligence Committee about the DHS’s knowledge of and reaction to Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Senate Intelligence Committee also heard testimony from state election officials, federal intelligence officials, and cybersecurity experts. Finally, President Trump revealed via Twitter that he had not recorded any conversations with James Comey, despite his earlier insinuations to the contrary.
DoJ and Special Counsel
Special counsel Mueller was the target of commentary from both the White House and Congress this week, following last week’s revelations that President Trump had considered dismissing him. Trump condemned Mueller’s relationship with James Comey in a Fox interview on Friday, seeming to call into question Mueller’s objectivity as well as that of his investigation’s legal team. The same day Republican Rep. Andy Biggs also criticized Mueller’s integrity, highlighting both his relationship with Comey and his “highly partisan” investigative team. Despite the ongoing tension surrounding Mueller and his probe, the White House has reaffirmed Trump’s commitment not to fire Mueller, and also reiterated its perennial assertion that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the election, and therefore no reason for the administration to impede the DoJ’s investigation. However, if President Trump does continue to discredit Mueller on the basis of a conflict of interest–his relationship with Comey–this could provide more ostensibly legitimate grounds for the administration to attempt to shut down or divert Mueller’s investigation.
During the past week, Mueller has met with leaders of the House Intelligence Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee about their contemporaneous Russia investigations. Both committees appeared positive about the ongoing independence and progression of their respective investigations, but no details were given.
Senate Judiciary Committee
A reminder for the sake of clarification: both the Senate Judiciary Committee (Chairman: Chuck Grassley) and the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism (Chairman: Lindsey Graham) are investigating Russian intervention in the 2016 election–the Subcommittee’s investigation began in earnest prior to the full committee’s involvement and was narrowly focused, but the latter is now taking more matters into consideration. The full Judiciary Committee is also probing the Comey firing, the possibility of collusion by the Trump campaign, and obstruction of justice, including DoJ interference in FBI investigations during the current and former presidential administrations; ranking member Dianne Feinstein had been urging Grassley to expand the scope of their investigation into Comey for some time, although the two committee leaders have disagreed on many parts of their probe. Feinstein and other Democratic committee members are set on hearing more testimony from intelligence community officials involved in or knowledgeable about the election and Russia’s interference, but it remains to be seen whether their Republican colleagues will be as willing to press forward with these lines of questioning.
House Intelligence Committee
This week the House Intelligence Committee heard anticipated testimony from former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Johnson testified about when the DHS and other arms of the intelligence community first became aware of Russian hacking and cyber manipulation during the 2016 election, and what efforts were made during that time to ensure and enhance electoral cybersecurity. Johnson told the committee that he had become increasingly concerned about the possibility of cyber attacks in the wake of the DNC hacks; he said the DNC had declined DHS support following the initial attacks. Johnson had wanted to strengthen electoral security by designating electoral infrastructure as ‘critical infrastructure’–a federal designation which would offer additional legal and intelligence protections and safeguards–but when he spoke with state officials he felt that many had wrongly interpreted his proposal as federal overreach, so he continued to probe other electoral cybersecurity measures. Johnson testified that as he was reaching out to state election officials, the DHS became aware of cyber “scanning and probing activities” in some states’ voter registration data. Throughout the election, the DHS and intelligence community at large, along with lawmakers and the White House, made bipartisan appeals to states to strengthen and monitor their electoral infrastructure with DHS aid. Johnson and other members of the intelligence community also released reports and warnings, both classified and unclassified, about the Russian government’s role in perpetrating the electoral cyberattacks. However, a key point that Johnson’s testimony highlighted was that despite the clear Russian interference and ongoing threat, the 2016 election was so charged with allegations of ‘hacking’, ‘rigging’, and deception on both sides that it became difficult for federal bodies–in particular, the outgoing administration–to make any claims or allegations, even if backed by strong evidence, without seeming partisan in some way.
Following Johnson’s testimony, ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff gave an interview on NPR in which he underscored the necessity for nonpartisan rejection of foreign electoral interference in the future; if nothing else, Johnson’s hearing made it clear that notwithstanding abundant evidence and a very real threat, the intelligence community at large had felt as if their hands were tied to some degree during such a tumultuous and antagonistic election. Schiff also indicated that the House Intelligence Committee will seek testimony from DNC officials regarding the initial DNC hacks. CNN reported that the committee will hear from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta next week about the hacking of his email account during the election, and TIME announced that the committee will also hear soon from the Trump campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale.
Senate Intelligence Committee
While the House Intelligence Committee heard from Johnson, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing for multiple cybersecurity, intelligence, and election officials, who testified about Russian hacking and cyber attacks during the election. Many of the officials’ testimonies reaffirmed the notion that the 2016 election was not the last we will see of foreign/Russian intervention in American democratic processes. Testimony from the hearing confirmed that 21 states’ electoral systems were hacked or probed by Russian intelligence, although it is difficult to verify specific cyber intrusions; current DHS Secretary John Kelly did not reveal which states were affected, although reports indicate that two states, Illinois and Arizona, are confirmed subjects of the incursion. Reports also indicate that potentially thousands of voter records containing personal data were infiltrated and stolen, and in at least one case altered–unsuccessfully. Like Johnson, other DHS officials testifying to the Senate called for increased communication and cooperation between federal and state governments to prevent future attacks and secure electoral infrastructure. Additional testimony from cybersecurity and computer science experts highlighted the technological vulnerability of the U.S.’s electoral infrastructure, including voting machines which could potentially be susceptible to hacking and manipulation. All of the committee’s interviews, however, affirmed that in the 2016 election no votes had been manipulated by the Russian cyber attacks. It is not clear whether voters [votes] were influenced by Russian efforts to sway media and public opinion during the election.
House Oversight Committee
The new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy, told reporters this week that under his leadership the committee will not continue their investigation into Russian electoral interference, nor will they probe any questions of obstruction of justice in relation to Trump and Comey. Gowdy said that other House committees, namely Intelligence and Judiciary, should maintain jurisdiction in House Russia investigations.
House Judiciary Committee
A new player may enter the congressional Russia investigations game: the House Judiciary Committee. This week Democrats on the committee urged its chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), to reconsider launching their own investigation into Russian intervention in the election and other related questions, citing a ‘responsibility’ as well as a jurisdictional mandate to probe these issues. House Judiciary Democrats had previously pushed for investigations into the election, but Goodlatte and other Republicans on the committee are wary of launching yet another congressional probe into a sitting president of their own party. However, given ongoing pressure from Democrats and increasingly compelling and intriguing investigative leads, the House Judiciary Committee may take more concrete steps in the coming months.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.