The Russia controversy – one of the most defining issues of Donald Trump’s young presidency – has been cast by the president and his supporters as a political “witch hunt,” even while Democrats are all over the news talk shows raising serious questions.
But strip away the political and media noise, and what is left is a Congress where both Republicans and Democrats appear resolved to keep Russia in check – even if that means crossing the president. In fact, observers say this Congress is the most hard-line against Moscow in decades, mostly because Russia’s attempts to influence last year’s US elections are too close to home to ignore.
“When we feel like we’re threatened, and certainly our elections and our cybersecurity are threatened, we go shoulder-to-shoulder,” Sen. David Perdue (R) of Georgia, one of the president’s closest allies in the Senate, told the Monitor last week.
That’s not to say that Congress is acting like a monolith on this issue. The path to sanctions against Russia has been rockier in the House than in the Senate. But this week the House is expected to pass revised sanctions legislation against Russia, after breaking a logjam over a bill that sped through the Senate last month with a near unanimous vote of 98-2.
At the same time, congressional attention is turning to the president’s former campaign manager and family members, including son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Mr. Kushner appeared Monday at a closed hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is investigating Russia’s attempt to influence last year’s election and any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia over the election.
In a written statement released Monday morning, Kushner said: “I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government.” He characterized his contacts with Russia or Russian representatives as minimal and himself as a political novice, flooded by e-mails and other communications in a swiftly moving campaign and transition period.
Kushner described the infamous June 2016 meeting that included himself, Donald Trump Jr., then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, and a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, as “a waste of our time” – so much so, he said, that he emailed an assistant to call his cell phone so he would have an excuse to leave.
Emails from a British publicist to Mr. Trump Jr. show the meeting was originally set up to offer damaging information on Hillary Clinton from Ms. Veselnitskaya, but Kushner’s written account says he read only that part of an email chain from his brother-in-law that announced a time change for the meeting. “Documents confirm my memory that this was calendared as ‘Meeting: Don Jr.| Jared Kushner.’ No one else was mentioned.”
Kushner, who expressed “gratitude” to be able to provide his version of events, will also appear in a private hearing before the House intelligence committee Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee, under the chairmanship of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, is also negotiating with Trump Jr. and Mr. Manafort to have them appear before the committee.
“It is striking that we’ve got bipartisan, sustained leadership on both the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee in continuing to pursue investigations,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware, a member of the Judiciary Committee, in a brief interview last week. “It is not as divisive as may superficially seem to be the case.”
‘Unprecedentedly hostile’ toward Russia
Paul Saunders, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, describes US-Russia relations as the worst they’ve been since the early 1980s, when former President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were in power amid mounting concern about a possible military confrontation in Europe.
The worry today is more over Russian cyberattacks and political interference than a hot war, he says, but in the '80s, the feeling was that relations could improve. Today, the expectation is they may well get worse.
“Attitudes toward Russia on Capitol Hill are unprecedentedly hostile,” says Mr. Saunders, a Russia expert at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. He attributes this “primarily to anger over Russia’s interference in the election.”
The White House, which is trying to improve relations with Russia, objected to the Senate sanctions bill, saying it handcuffs the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy – not an unusual complaint for a commander in chief. The bill got bogged down in the House over procedural and policy issues, with plenty of political accusations to go around.
But a revised version emerged over the weekend that was worked out with lawmakers from both parties and both chambers. The bill has been adjusted to meet some US business complaints and has added sanctions against North Korea to a package that already included sanctions against Russia and Iran.
It would still, however, make it very difficult for the president to overturn sanctions without congressional approval. The new sanctions against Russia would punish it for its meddling in US elections, its military actions in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and human rights abuses.
How the parties have switched stances
Notably, the politics over Russia has “totally flipped on its head” from the cold war days, says Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Democrats have become more hawkish and vocal, demanding more congressional oversight of the Trump administration vis-à-vis Russia from the Republican-controlled Congress. They point to a lack of independence from the White House on Russia that caused then-House intelligence chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R) of California, to hand his committee gavel over to Rep. Mike Conaway (R) of Texas, earlier this year.
“I mean, where are the heroic figures like we had in Watergate?” says Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia. (Editor's note: The congressman's quote has been corrected from an earlier version.)
Many Republicans attribute the drip, drip, drip of bad news on possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign to media hype, Democratic histrionics, and neophytes in the White House with poor record-keeping and minimal understanding of government – political bumpkins, perhaps, but not criminals. Neither do many of their voters think Russia should be a top concern.
“My state overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R) of Alabama, when asked by reporters whether the stories about Trump Jr.’s meeting were becoming a distraction. Russia is just one of “thousands upon thousands of issues” in his state, he said, and is viewed that way. Still, Congressman Brooks, a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, supports sanctions against Russia.
In a brief interview with the Monitor, Senate intelligence chairman Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina said that the news churn and politicization of Russia were not affecting the bipartisan nature of his committee’s work – though he did admit that “the public nature of some of the statements makes it a little more difficult for us to get the witnesses that we need and to do it in the privacy that we’d like.”
While the committee’s ranking member, Democrat Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, is a regular on the talk shows, Chairman Burr says he chose “a different route” when he started the investigation. He doesn’t do sit-down television interviews nor does he go over to the White House, because he wants to avoid any appearance of outside influence.
Indeed, on this day last week, when almost all of his GOP Senate colleagues were at the White House being pressed by the president to pass a health-care bill, Burr was ordering take-out from the Senate's basement café.
“I have to stay as open as I possibly can,” he says about the investigation, holding onto his lunch. “We’re going to follow this through wherever the intelligence leads us.”