News of the Russia investigations over the past week has mainly focused on testimonies, interviews, or refusals from persons of interest. The special counsel has been busy interviewing White House staffers, while the congressional intelligence committees have had less luck bringing witnesses to the stand. The House Intelligence Committee is beset as ever by conflict, this time between recused chairman Devin Nunes and the firm behind the controversial Steele dossier. Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and unsurprisingly refused to discuss Russia-investigation-related matters.
DoJ and Special Counsel
Mueller’s team has been circling in on the White House, conducting interviews with recently departed staffers over the past weeks and reportedly planning to meet with more former and current officials in the near future. Last Friday, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus met voluntarily with the special counsel, reportedly to discuss Priebus’ knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the President’s most controversial Russia-investigation-related actions, including former FBI director Comey’s firing and the response to Donald Trump Jr’s infamous Trump Tower meeting, among other things. Priebus’ interview had been scheduled for some time but kept being delayed while the special counsel’s team waited for its relevant White House document requests to be fulfilled. After Priebus, Mueller met with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday. Spicer was reportedly interviewed about his knowledge of and responses to Comey’s firing and the Trump Tower meeting as well. Although future interviews are not yet scheduled, the special counsel is expected to meet with at least two current administration officials in the coming months: White House communications director Hope Hicks, and White House counsel Don McGahn.
Senate Intelligence Committee
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation has had a somewhat disappointing week, after being denied documents and testimony from a few key witnesses. Notable among these is former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, who refused to comply with initial Committee requests for documents regarding his Russian contacts and connections, which prompted the Committee to issue a subpoena. Although the Committee reportedly expects Page to invoke 5th Amendment rights in order to avoid testimony, Page’s position on cooperation with the Russia investigations has frequently shifted. He has expressed willingness to cooperate with Senate investigators, and told the media that he was already interviewed by the FBI; after the Committee first requested information from him he then indicated that he would not cooperate, but following the Committee’s subpoena NBC reported that Page had instead asked to testify publicly on November 1st, which is the day the Committee scheduled their hearing for Facebook and other influential social media company officials to testify.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has also been trying to obtain information from former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s son concerning his role in the family’s business dealings, especially meetings and close contact with Russian businesses and Kremlin affiliates. The Committee had previously requested documents and testimony from Flynn Jr, who never responded; Committee members were reportedly unsatisfied by earlier information provided by the Flynn family and have since proven their willingness to subpoena information they are denied. The special counsel is also reportedly interested in speaking with Flynn Jr, although potentially not just for his information but in an attempt to compel Flynn Sr to cooperate as well.
Finally, President Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen is scheduled to speak with Senate Intelligence Committee investigators at the end of the month.
House Intelligence Committee
The House Intelligence Committee’s somewhat one-sided focus on the Steele dossier has persisted, taking the form over the past few weeks of an increasingly heated back-and-forth between Fusion GPS, the political research firm which commissioned the dossier, and members of the Committee–seemingly led by displaced chairman Devin Nunes. At the beginning of the month, the Committee subpoenaed Fusion GPS officials to testify about the dossier, which reportedly took the Committee’s minority by surprise. Reports originally indicated that Nunes, who recused himself from the Russia investigation, had issued the subpoenas of his own accord. Many still perceive Nunes as trying to undermine or politicize the investigation by acting without full Committee support or knowledge, and pursuing leads that are often seen as irrelevant to the investigation’s main focus. Nunes has maintained that he never actually recused himself from the Committee’s Russia investigation, only temporarily stepped aside. As Committee chairman, Nunes still has ultimate oversight on subpoenas related to the investigation. However, last week Republican Committee members denied that Nunes had acted unilaterally in subpoenaing Fusion GPS, saying that Mike Conaway–the Republican in charge of the Russia investigation since Nunes’ recusal–had originally requested that Nunes issue the subpoenas. Ranking member Adam Schiff said that the Fusion subpoenas, as well as earlier Committee subpoenas to the DoJ, were made without consulting him or the rest of the minority. Fusion has also been fighting back against the subpoenas, accusing Nunes in a letter of abusing his power and acting in the interest of the President, not the progression of the investigation, by trying to run a parallel and irrelevant investigation into the dossier and uncover the identity of the clients who funded it. Fusion GPS officials briefly visited the House Intelligence Committee last week in response to their subpoena, but refused to testify, invoking “constitutional privileges” and maintaining that the subpoenas were politically motivated and that sharing information about their clients would violate confidentiality policies. The officials also reminded the Committee that Fusion GPS had already complied with congressional Russia investigators; founder Glenn Simpson gave a lengthy interview to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the year, and the company has asked for the transcript of that interview to be made public. It is unclear how Nunes and the rest of the House Intelligence Committee will respond to Fusion GPS’s accusations and refusal to testify.
Another important issue for the Committee has been the Russian-bought Facebook ads which aimed to spread social and political discord prior to the election. While their Senate counterpart has scheduled a public hearing for officials from Facebook and other similarly implicated social media sites, the House Intelligence Committee has been considering publicizing the Facebook ads in question. This week, after meeting with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Schiff and Conaway said they would be releasing the Russian ads that Facebook had given the Committee, in order to better inform the public about potential future online threats. In addition to the House Intelligence Committee Sandberg has been visiting many other groups of lawmakers over the past week, as more and more tech companies are being drawn into the congressional Russia investigations and anticipate being called to testify.
The spread of Russian-backed socially and politically divisive false stories and pages before and during the 2016 election has become a focal point of all the Russia investigations, but also raises broader questions for Congress and the tech firms whose platforms were used. Firstly, it isn’t clear just how far the misinformation campaign reached, and even as more social media companies are implicated it’s becoming clear that the false stories weren’t just limited to Russian activity on their sites: ordinary people saw and spread them to disparate corners of the internet. Secondly, it is almost impossible to gauge if and how the misinformation actually affected Americans’ perceptions of the election, and possibly of the electoral system itself. As more information is uncovered–both by congressional investigators and by tech firms themselves–about how Russian operatives used the internet to influence public opinion, the contentious issue of internet regulation becomes more acute. Most of the sites affected conducted very little content oversight, and are only now discovering the frightening extent of foreign political propagandizing on their platforms. Bipartisan groups in both the house and senate have recently introduced legislation to closely track and regulate internet advertising, especially political and foreign-bought ads. Representatives for Facebook, Google, and Twitter–the three sites with the most documented Russian activity–will meet on November 1st with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to discuss internal and external content regulation; the companies and both committees are still working to assess the extent of the disinformation, which has already been found to have reached at least millions of Americans through those sites and others.
Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a highly anticipated routine oversight hearing with AG Jeff Sessions this past week. Sessions’ testimony covered a wide range of controversial judiciary topics, but Committee members were eager to press him on his knowledge of and role in the Comey firing, as well as his initially undisclosed communications with Russians. Sessions refused to discuss the circumstances of Comey’s dismissal, telling the Committee that his conversations with the President about such matters were confidential, and citing executive privilege–Presidential power to bar staff from discussing certain issues–even though Trump has never invoked it and has had ample time to do so. When asked about the special counsel, Sessions said he wants Mueller to complete his probe and would cooperate if asked. Sessions also told Committee members that he hasn’t been interviewed by Mueller thus far, although he was initially reluctant to answer this line of questioning.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.