President Donald Trump can insist his presidential campaign never colluded with Russia “until the cows come home,” but evidence that Trump campaign officials conspired with Russia already has been made public, the top House Democrat investigating the Kremlin’s election meddling said Thursday.
“It’s a separate question whether you have proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
While Schiff laid out a litany of complaints that the Republican majority is impeding the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, he said he expects the panel soon will question Trump’s recently ousted senior presidential adviser and confidant, Steven Bannon – an appearance that a knowledgeable source said has been scheduled for next week.
Bannon further alienated himself from the White House when he was quoted last week in a new book as calling “treasonous” a June 9, 2016 meeting in New York’s Trump Tower between Trump’s eldest son and two other top campaign aides and a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
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Bannon later apologized to Donald Trump, Jr. and said he actually intended to refer to Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who was in attendance. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was the third campaign representative at the meeting. They are among a bevy of Trump aides and associates under scrutiny by congressional committees and Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Schiff also said it would be “valuable” for the panel to interview Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, Kushner’s wife.
Speaking at the Capitol with a group of reporters, Schiff pushed back against a deluge of Republican attacks in recent weeks, including tweets Thursday from Trump, challenging the legitimacy of the congressional and Justice Department investigations into the campaign’s ties to Russia. Schiff accused the panel’s chairman, fellow California Rep. Devin Nunes, of stalling the committee’s inquiry by “sitting on” Democratic requests to interview dozens of witnesses even though Nunes publicly pledged to withdraw from the probe.
A spokesman for Nunes did not respond to requests for comment.
Other individuals “are knowledgeable about” the infamous Trump Tower meeting, but committee leaders have so far declined to invite them, Schiff said. Further, he said, the Russian lawyer who attended the meeting – Natalia Veselnitskaya – has expressed a willingness to speak to Mueller’s office but panel leaders have declined to invite her.
Trump Jr., who arranged the meeting, has said no information about Clinton was passed to him, Kushner and Manafort in the session, and the subject quickly turned to Veselnitskaya’s push to end U.S. sanctions on Russia, for which the Kremlin retaliated with a ban on American adoptions of Russian children.
But Schiff, a former federal prosecutor who won the conviction of an FBI agent who sold U.S. secrets to Russia, had a quite different take after 10 months of investigation.
He noted that the Trump Tower meeting was preceded by a Russian approach to a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, George Papadopoulos, offering stolen Democratic emails.
“When you look at the offer of further assistance in the Trump Tower meeting, when you look at the message that went back to the Russians after that Trump Tower meeting: ‘We would love to have your help, Russians, but we’re really disappointed in what you gave us at that meeting.’”
A short time later, Schiff said, Julian Assange, the founder of the London-based transparency group WikiLeaks, announced he had possession of stolen Democratic emails, “which we now know came from the Russians.”
“So, just judging some of the evidence in the public realm, there is some evidence of collusion,” he said.
If Republicans halt the investigation before a thorough examination is completed, Schiff said, the ultimate responsibility will rest with House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and the precedent will “be damaging to the institution.”
As the Russia investigations have heated up, the Republicans have begun wielding their political power with greater intensity.
Nunes, while handing the reins of the Russia inquiry to Republican Rep. Michael Conaway of Texas last April because he was subject to an ethics inquiry, recently launched his own investigation into Mueller’s office and the degree to which it relied on a dossier of opposition political research on Trump’s Russia connections, collected by a retired British spy. Trump tweeted about the dossier Thursday, calling it “disproven and paid for by Democrats” and asking whether the FBI used it to influence the election.
The British spy, former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, was hired by a Washington intelligence consultant doing opposition research on Trump on behalf of a Republican client; after Trump cinched the Republican presidential nomination, his work was financed by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Schiff’s comments came as Democrats attempt to respond to growing GOP criticism of Mueller’s investigation and the individuals who are conducting it. On Wednesday, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a comprehensive report detailing actions they say are immediately needed to prevent meddling in the 2018 elections. And on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California unilaterally put out the transcript of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s interview of Glenn Simpson, the consultant who hired the British spy, which drew objections from the panel’s Republican chairman.
On the GOP side, the White House, led by Trump, has sung a deafening refrain of “no collusion” in recent days. In addition, two House committees are conducting a separate joint probe of the Justice Department’s and FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct official business, sometimes involving sensitive or classified information, while serving as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. Clinton was ultimately cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
Democratic Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, a senior member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the Republican-initiated task force that includes his panel and the Judiciary Committee is part of an effort to divert attention from the Russia investigation.
"It's fairly transparent what they're doing," Connolly said. "This is hoping that we'll all be distracted by the 'Hey, look over there!'”
Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a member of the oversight panel, said the task force expects to receive materials from the agencies next week.
Meadows said the group is developing a list of witnesses it wants to call and has made a "substantial request" for documents, due Jan. 15.
"What we're trying to do is keep it as non-political as we possibly can," Meadows said.
McClatchy Correspondent Lesley Clark and Special Correspondent Peter Stone contributed.