Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry

Drama is building around the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation after the panel’s top Republican and Democrat clashed over what their findings reveal two years after they opened their inquiry.

The Senate probe is viewed as the most bipartisan congressional investigation into Russian interference, with committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSchiff: Evidence of collusion between Trump campaign, Russia 'pretty compelling' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry MORE (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSchiff: Evidence of collusion between Trump campaign, Russia 'pretty compelling' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs MORE (D-Va.) walking in lockstep on most matters.

However, fractures have emerged recently after Burr publicly stated that none of their evidence indicates the Trump campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.

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“If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia,” Burr told CBS News in an interview published last week, expanding somewhat on remarks he made to The Hill last month.

Burr has long noted that he remains open to the possibility there was collusion and will make a final judgment once the panel’s investigation, which is still ongoing, is completed.

Democrats have pushed back on Burr’s most recent remarks, arguing his assessment is premature because key witnesses have not been interviewed and that it doesn’t take into account other evidence the investigation has uncovered.

“I just respectfully, factually, disagree with Chairman Burr,” Warner told The Hill on Wednesday. “I’m not going to reach any final conclusions until we finish our report. That has kept us together, and I am going to adhere to those rules.”

Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingDrama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry Warner, Burr split on committee findings on collusion Overnight Defense: Top general wasn't consulted on Syria withdrawal | Senate passes bill breaking with Trump on Syria | What to watch for in State of the Union | US, South Korea reach deal on troop costs MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats, told The Hill that it’s too early to say what the probe has determined.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee has not concluded anything,” he said Tuesday. “Several of the individual members have made statements, but I certainly am not prepared to make a statement as to what was found or not found.”

Both Burr and Warner have said there are more witnesses to bring in.

According to a Democratic source close to the committee, that list includes key individuals who have become ensnared in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation, including former Trump campaign aides Richard Gates, George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosMueller probe figures use fame to pay bills Schiff: Evidence of collusion between Trump campaign, Russia 'pretty compelling' Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry MORE and Michael Flynn, who went on to serve briefly as national security adviser.

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Senators are expected to interview Michel Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, before he goes to prison on March 6. Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, confirmed those plans this week.

The committee is also eyeing Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? Rule change sharpens Dem investigations into Trump Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry MORE, who testified briefly at the start of the Senate probe, according to the source.

“Those are some pretty big witnesses,” the source said.

Democrats argue there was a pattern of communication between the Trump campaign and Russia that could point toward collusion.

Warner pointed to “Russian agents, Russian actors reaching out to the Trump Organization with promise of dirt on [Democratic president nominee Hillary] Clinton, and the president’s son [Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpHouse chairman: Trump lawyers may have given false info about Cohen payments Sarah Sanders says she was interviewed by Mueller's office Trump dismisses Ann Coulter after criticism: 'I hardly know her' MORE] welcoming that; the president’s campaign manager sharing confidential campaign information with Russian agents; the notion that the president who didn’t tell the truth about negotiations of a Trump Tower going through at least June and potentially — if you believe the president’s lawyer [Rudy] Giuliani — through the election.”

Those contacts, Warner said, are “unprecedented and inappropriate at the very least.”

Warner, who noted that he still has “a strong working relationship” with Burr, recently seized on one particular revelation earlier this year as a sign of inappropriate contact between members of the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

When a bungled court filing revealed in January that Mueller accused former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortRoger Stone shares, quickly deletes Instagram photo of federal judge on his case Mueller probe figures use fame to pay bills Mueller subpoenas former Cambridge Analytica employee MORE of sharing private polling data with a Russian suspected of ties to Kremlin intelligence, Warner told CNN this “appears as the closest we have seen yet to real life actual collusion.”

The data was allegedly intended to be shared with two pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarchs. 

“Clearly, Manafort was trying to collude with Russian agents. And the question is, what did the president know? What did Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE know about this exchange of information?” Warner asked.

The Democratic source close to the committee said more investigation is warranted.

“Certainly, what we have found is a significant pattern of evidence that is suggestive of something larger,” the source said on Wednesday. “And I don’t think within the Senate Intelligence Committee there are disagreement about the facts — it is mostly a disagreement on how to interpret them.”

“We were never going to find evidence that would directly implicate Donald Trump in a giant plan to collude with the Russian government,” the source added. “We were never going to find a letter from Trump to Vladimir Putin saying, ‘Hey buddy, why don’t we talk about sanctions relief?’”

“When I finish, I’ll make a judgment,” Burr told The Hill last month. “Based upon the information that I have seen today, I don’t see evidence of collusion.”  

Burr’s latest assertions come at a time when the investigation is said to be winding down, which has added more weight to his statement.

“If I can finish tomorrow, I would finish tomorrow,” he told CBS. “We know we’re getting to the bottom of the barrel because there are not new questions that we’re searching for answers to.”

However, Burr has shifted the timeline for the investigation’s end. At one point, he predicted the probe would be wrapped up in August. The committee has yet to issue three of the five reports stemming from the probe, some of which are held up in the declassification process.

The intention of the committee has long been to issue one bipartisan, fact-based report at the conclusion of the probe. But it remains an open question whether the issue of collusion will ultimately divide Republicans and Democrats.

NBC News, citing Democratic and Republican aides, reported earlier this week that no direct evidence has been uncovered.

The recent comments from Burr, who also told CBS he hopes politics doesn't drive his committee's investigation, caught fire as Trump and other Republicans touted his remarks.

“Senator Richard Burr, The Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, just announced that after almost two years, more than two hundred interviews, and thousands of documents, they have found NO COLLUSION BETWEEN TRUMP AND RUSSIA! Is anybody really surprised by this?” Trump tweeted Sunday.

“After 2 years and more than 200 interviews, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee has affirmed: there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia,” reads a Republican National Committee email blasted out Tuesday.

The Trump campaign also used the remarks on Saturday to solicit donations, asking for donations to the campaign’s “Official End the Partisan Witch Hunt Fund.”

Jacqueline Thomsen contributed.

Updated at 10:12 a.m.