There Are Many Russia Investigations. What Are They All Doing?

June 8, 2017

Former FBI Director James Comey has given testimony to no less than three congressional committees about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He has also talked to the Department of Justice’s special prosecutor.

Through this one witness, we see how large and complicated the Russia inquiry has become. The many twists and turns taking place in the sprawling Russian interference storyline cross the jurisdiction of multiple investigators.

The big three investigations are being run by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence Committee and the Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller.

Here’s a primer to help you sort out which investigation is doing what.

Senate Intelligence Committee

What is it focusing on?

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is conducting a broad inquiry looking at what, exactly, Russia did to influence the 2016 elections and how that fits into broader “cyberactivity and active measures” the country has used to target the United States. Part of that includes examining whether there is any evidence that members of Donald Trump’s campaign collaborated with Russian operatives.

“The Committee will follow the intelligence wherever it leads,” Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chair Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement announcing the probe.

“We will be conducting the bulk of the Committee’s business behind closed doors because we take seriously our obligation to protect sources and methods.”

Key players

The panel is being led by Burr. He advised the Trump campaign last year but has vowed to take the investigation seriously. “It overrides any personal beliefs that I have or loyalties that I might have,” he told reporters earlier this year.

Burr has separated himself from the Trump administration more than other key Republicans involved in Russia investigations. He voiced concerns about Comey’s firing and has said he has seen no evidence backing one of Trump’s more outlandish claims — that President Barack Obama ordered a “wiretap” of Trump Tower during the presidential campaign.

Warner is the top Democrat on the committee. While the House Intelligence Committee has been characterized by partisan infighting, Warner has worked hard to present a united front with Burr. The two-term senator and former governor has repeatedly said the investigation is the “most important thing I’ve ever done” in public service.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has several members who are often speculated about as future presidential candidates: Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Democrat Kamala Harris of California.

Most memorable public moment

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation has, up until this point, been defined by its bipartisan nature.

That is due in part not only to inevitable comparisons to the often-gridlocked House Intelligence Committee’s investigation but also to a concerted effort being made by Burr and Warner.

Most of the Senate investigation’s meetings and hearings have taken place behind closed doors. Comey’s testimony before the panel will most assuredly be its most high-profile moment. But up until now, the Senate investigation’s key characteristic has been the fact that Warner and Burr are, by and large, on the same page when it comes to the focus and pace of their investigation.

What the investigation could lead to

Burr and Warner have said their goal is to produce a detailed, bipartisan report summing up what actions Russian operatives took in 2016 and how similar attacks can be prevented in future elections.

The committee can’t recommend criminal charges, as the special counsel investigation is empowered to do.

House Intelligence Committee

What is it focusing on?

Like its Senate counterpart, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence wants to write a report answering four questions:

  1. What did Russia do to influence the 2016 election?
  2. Were there any links between Russian operatives “and individuals associated with political campaigns”?
  3. How did the federal government respond to these efforts?
  4. How and why was classified information leaked during this process?

Chairman Devin Nunes and other Republicans on the committee have publicly focused much of their attention on leaks and whether the Obama administration “unmasked” intelligence about Trump associates for political purposes.

Key players

California Republican Nunes remains chair of the House Intelligence Committee, though in April, he temporarily stepped down as head of its Russia investigation. Nunes’ move came in response to an Ethics Committee inquiry into whether he improperly disclosed classified information over the course of the investigation.

The ethics probe was launched after Nunes made a high-profile trip to the White House to discuss information that he claimed raised questions about whether the Obama administration had improperly “unmasked” — or asked for the identity of — Trump associates surveilled during routine foreign intelligence operations. He spoke to reporters about this information before telling his colleagues on the committee about it. “The committee has been put into suspended animation,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., told MSNBC afterwards.

Nunes later admitted that his information had initially come from the Trump administration. That raised questions about whether Nunes was providing political cover for the president he was investigating.

While Nunes stepped down from the Russia investigation, he has continued to issue and sign investigation-related subpoenas.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is leading the Russia investigation in Nunes’ place.

California Rep. Adam Schiff is the top Democrat on the committee and one of the most commonly seen public faces of the Russia inquiries.

As the committee’s investigation became more partisan, Schiff was forthright not just with the available evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — but also with what it would mean if such a thing were proven true.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated, and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians used the same techniques to corrupt U.S. persons that they have employed in Europe and elsewhere. We simply don’t know, not yet, and we owe it to the country to find out,” Schiff said at a March hearing featuring Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers.

Conaway and Schiff tried to repair public confidence in the bipartisan integrity of their investigation by making a joint press statement on Tuesday.

Most memorable public moment

Nunes’ White House trips created weeks of headlines. But the committee’s public hearings have led to several key moments, as well.

The most notable: Comey’s first public disclosure of an active FBI probe into whether anyone on Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian efforts to influence the election.

What it could lead to

The House Intelligence Committee’s end goal is a report laying out its findings. Like the Senate committee, the House investigation wouldn’t lead to criminal charges.

The key question is whether the House Intelligence Committee will issue one bipartisan report or two separate findings from its Republican and Democratic camps.

Special Counsel, Department Of Justice

What is it focusing on?

On May 17, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Mueller to take charge of the FBI investigation into whether anyone on Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian operatives.

This is the leading Russia investigation but also the most secretive. While the House and Senate committees play out in high-profile public hearings, Mueller’s investigation will take place behind closed doors. Congressional investigations also tend to defer to law enforcement when it comes to access to witnesses and evidence.

Muller is charged with investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Campaign of President Donald Trump; and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

That second clause has been interpreted to include the question of whether Trump or other White House officials improperly acted to impede the FBI investigation and likely includes the circumstances of the dismissals of both former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Comey.

Key players

Mueller led the FBI for 12 years and began his tenure just a week before the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He’s widely respected in Washington.

Other key members of Mueller’s investigative team include former FBI Chief of Staff Aaron Zebley; onetime Watergate prosecutor James Quarles; Andrew Weissmann, who led the Department of Justice’s fraud division and helped investigate Enron; and Jeannie Rhee, who worked in the Justice Department, as well as Mueller’s law firm WilmerHale.

Most memorable public moment

Over the course of his career, Mueller developed a reputation as someone who does not leak to the news media. So we don’t know too much about how the investigation is going.

So the most memorable moment of the investigation is probably Rosenstein’s surprise announcement that he was appointing Mueller to begin with.

What it could lead to

Special counsel investigations into White Houses are notoriously unpredictable. Ken Starr’s probe into Bill and Hillary Clinton’s alleged real estate improprieties led to a report about Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky and the president’s eventual impeachment.

The investigation into whether the Bush White House improperly leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame ultimately led to a top White House aide, Scooter Libby, being convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury.

The key detail here is that Mueller has the power to press criminal charges based on what his investigation uncovers. And his investigation is likely to have broader scope and intensity than the congressional committees, so its findings could have political ramifications as well.

And the rest…

While those are the three most high-profile Russia investigations, there are various other inquiries in different parts of the federal government. Those include:

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been tasked with looking for ways to improve cybersecurity and protect against future hacking by foreign actors.
  • The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., held the hearing at which former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that she had warned the Trump White House that she believed Flynn was “compromised.”
  • The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been looking at Flynn’s payments from Russia and Turkey. Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland has largely driven the narrative on that angle, releasing evidence at various times. The committee also joined the Senate Judiciary Committee, with oversight of the FBI, and the Senate Intelligence Committee in requesting copies of Comey’s memos detailing private interactions with Trump.
  • The Department of Defense Inspector General is also investigating Flynn’s payments from Russia and Turkey to determine whether those payments broke laws against former officers receiving foreign payments without advance approval.
  • The House Financial Services Committee’s Democratic members have been requesting documents from Deutsche Bank to investigate whether Trump has been given any loans backed by Russian interests.
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