Republicans plow ahead with Russia origins probe

Senate Republicans are marching forward with probes into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation and the surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser.

The developments come as the Senate is in the middle of a five-week break sparked by the rapid spread of the coronavirus, which has devastated the economy and resulted in more than 30,000 deaths in the United States.

But top GOP chairmen are unveiling details of their controversial probes or requesting more information, signaling they have no intention of slowing down even as senators aren’t expected to reconvene until at least May 4, the Senate’s tentative return date.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), seizing on newly declassified details of a Justice Department watchdog report, are asking FBI Director Christopher Wray to hand over all records related to “Crossfire Hurricane,” the name for the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. 

“We are deeply troubled by the Crossfire Hurricane team’s awareness of and apparent indifference to Russian disinformation, as well as by the grossly inaccurate statements by the FBI official in charge of the investigation and its supervisory intelligence analyst,” the two GOP senators wrote Thursday in a letter to Wray.

The letter comes after Republicans received new information from recently declassified footnotes in Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court warrants targeting former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Horowitz’s report found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the Page warrant applications in 2016 and 2017.

The findings have sparked a shake-up of the FISA system, with Congress debating tighter restrictions, the FBI taking corrective action and a broader review underway of FISA warrant applications. An interim report released by Horowitz late last month reviewed 29 FISA applications and found errors with all of them.

But the new details being touted by Johnson and Grassley relate to the so-called Steele dossier, a compilation of opposition research against then-candidate Trump spearheaded by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele.

The footnotes, which still contain some redactions, show the FBI was warned that some of the information Steele received could have been part of a Russian disinformation effort.

Another declassified footnote says two people affiliated with the Russian intelligence service “were aware of Steele’s election investigation in early July 2016,” but an analyst told Horowitz that while he was aware of the report, “he had no information as of June 2017 that Steele’s election reporting source network had been penetrated or compromised.”

“As we can see from these now-declassified footnotes in the [inspector general’s] report, Russian intelligence was aware of the dossier before the FBI even began its investigation and the FBI had reports in hand that their central piece of evidence was most likely tainted with Russian disinformation,” Grassley and Johnson said in a joint statement. 

Republicans have homed in for months on the Steele dossier, with President Trump and his allies arguing it was the predicate for the FBI’s decision to open an investigation into the Trump campaign and Moscow.

But Horowitz, in his report on the Page warrant, said the FBI’s investigation was properly initiated. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in December, he said the Steele dossier “had no impact” on the initiation of the FBI’s investigation.

However, the watchdog acknowledged in his December report that there was concern within the FBI that Russia was trying to feed disinformation to Steele.

“The Crossfire Hurricane team was aware of the potential for Russian disinformation to influence Steele’s reporting,” Horowitz wrote.

The declassified footnotes released by Grassley and Johnson elaborate on the concern about potential Russian interference. One says the FBI’s team had been notified by an individual, whose name is redacted, of the “potential for Russian disinformation influencing Steele’s election reporting.”

According to the footnote in Horowitz’s findings, a 2017 report from an individual, whose name is also redacted, raised concerns about a subset of reporting relating specifically to now-former Trump attorney Michael Cohen.

The individual “stated that it did not have high confidence in this subset of Steele’s reporting and assessed that the referenced subset was part of a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate U.S. foreign relations,” the declassified footnote reads.

In addition to the new disclosures from Grassley and Johnson, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) released details of the Judiciary Committee’s probe into the FISA warrant process.

The documents released by Graham, who created a new website for the committee probe, include newly declassified Justice Department material such as transcripts of conversations George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, had with FBI sources and redacted warrant applications against Page.  

“I’m committed to being as transparent as possible about the circumstances surrounding FISA abuse. The goal is to make sure it never happens again,” Graham said in a statement.

The focus on the origins of the Russia campaign comes as Grassley and Johnson’s separate investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma Holdings is largely in limbo because of the Senate recess and a fight within the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Johnson chairs, on subpoenas.

The investigations have sparked running tensions with Democrats on the committees, who view them as an effort to target former Vice President Joe Biden, in regard to the Burisma probe, or to undermine the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election interference, in regard to the probes on its origins.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, published after his nearly 22-month investigation, found that Russia sought to help Trump defeat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 but that his campaign did not directly assist in that process.

Mueller’s report also outlined 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice by Trump. 

Trump and some of his fiercest allies have decried Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt.” Republicans, after the investigation wrapped up, pledged they would “investigate the investigators.”

Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, in a letter turning over a new tranche of declassified footnotes, said he consulted with Attorney General William Barr.

Barr, who has launched his own investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, has come under criticism by Democrats for his comments about the initial FBI investigation.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Jeffrey Ragsdale, acting director of the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility and Horowitz asking for an investigation into whether Barr’s “statements in matters involving the interests of the President violate applicable Justice Department policies and rules of professional conduct.”

In the letter, the two senators point to a recent Fox News interview in which Barr said the FBI’s investigation was started “without any basis.” 

“I think the president has every right to be frustrated,” Barr said during the interview. “I think what happened to him was one of the greatest travesties in American history.”

The two Democratic senators noted that Horowitz found the “FBI had a legitimate legal and factual basis to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.”

“It is critical that the American people have confidence in the work of the Justice Department, which requires that all of its employees — and most importantly, the Attorney General — be truthful and impartial,” they added.

Tags Christopher Wray Chuck Grassley Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump FBI FISA warrants George Papadopoulos Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Mark Warner Michael Cohen Robert Mueller Ron Johnson Russia Russia origins probe William Barr
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