Leading congressional Republicans joined calls by Democrats for a deeper look at contacts between President Donald Trump’s team and Russian intelligence agents Wednesday, indicating a growing sense of political peril within the party as new reports surfaced of extensive contacts between the two. The New York Times reported that Trump campaign aides and associates “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before” the November 2016 election, citing four current and former U.S. officials the newspaper didn’t identify. It’s unclear if the talks pertained to Trump personally, and the Times reported that there’s been no evidence uncovered that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian attempts to influence the election.
Even before the report was published top Republicans already were expressing rising concern about the issue following the ouster national security adviser Michael Flynn, who the administration says may have misled the president and vice president about his communications with a Russian envoy.
Trump responded in a string of tweets Wednesday morning, taking aim at targets ranging from “ the fake news media” to a cover-up for “ Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign” to “ the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?),” which he said was “just like Russia.”
Like some of his allies, Trump also focused on the leaks that are driving the reports about links with Russia. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
You may also like to watch:
Several congressional Republicans called for a wider investigation of the administration’s relations with Russia and of Moscow’s alleged interference in U.S. politics, an indication that they are concerned recent revelations are putting their agenda at risk by consuming the debate and eroding political support.
“I think there needs to be fulsome investigation on all angles relative to nefarious activities that were taking place with Russia, beginning in March but even going back before that time,” Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters yesterday. He said Flynn’s resignation “heightens” the need for Republican leaders to conduct an expanded probe, although he stopped short of endorsing an independent commission as Democrats have demanded.
Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, also said that more needs to be learned about Flynn’s discussions with Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, and Russia’s involvement in U.S. politics.
Graham, interviewed on Fox News Wednesday morning, said the Trump administration needs to recognize “the fact that there is a cloud growing over your presidency with regard to Russia. If it is all a misunderstanding, they’re innocent contacts, let’s get to the bottom of it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an MSNBC interview that aired Wednesday a select committee was unnecessary. “We know how to do our work. We have an intelligence committee and the judiciary committee — Lindsey Graham’s got a subcommittee that’s going to take a look at it.”
But Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election is “a significant issue,” he said. “We know they were messing around with it. We don’t think it had any impact on the outcome. But obviously we’re not going to ignore something like that.”
But some other Republicans, including the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, are downplaying the need to investigate Flynn and said any probe should instead be focused on leaks about Flynn’s phone call.
Devin Nunes, a California Republican, said the leaks are “absolutely” the most troubling part of the episode, adding, “We want to get to the bottom of it.”
Trump associates’ contacts with Russians before the election were found in phone records and intercepted calls, the Times reported, around the time that Trump was speaking approvingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin and intelligence agencies were looking into the theft of Democratic National Committee e-mails by Russian hackers.
The officials cited by the Times said they haven’t seen evidence of cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia on the hacking. It’s not unusual for American business people to unwittingly interact with foreign intelligence agents, the report said.
One of the Trump associates heard in the calls was former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who had done business in Ukraine and who told the Times that he had “never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers.”
A Kremlin spokesman rejected allegations that Trump’s team met with Russian spies. Their contacts were “normal diplomatic practice,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The turmoil at the White House was triggered by the situation surrounding Flynn. An administration official said the FBI interviewed Flynn about his pre-inauguration conversations with Kislyak, after Trump took office. The Justice Department warned the White House counsel, Don McGahn, on Jan. 26 that Flynn may have misled officials about whether he and Kislyak discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday.
Trump was briefed “immediately” after McGahn received that warning. But Vice President Mike Pence — who had defended Flynn in a Jan. 15 appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” asserting that the national security adviser hadn’t discussed sanctions with Kislyak — didn’t learn of the Justice Department’s warning until Feb. 9, and then it was “based on media accounts,” his spokesman Marc Lotter said.
The Trump administration was preparing to replace Flynn as early as last week, a senior administration official said. White House officials spoke with Robert Harward, a potential replacement for Flynn, last week and again on Monday, the official said, requesting anonymity to discuss a personnel issue.
Harward is a retired Navy vice admiral who once served under Defense Secretary James Mattis at U.S. Central Command. Former CIA Director David Petraeus has also been under consideration. Former Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt on Bloomberg TV Wednesday denied reports he is a candidate to replace Flynn.