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Senate Democrats Coalesce on Demands for Russia Probe

Minority party hopes public attention forces issue on GOP

Schumer, center, Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Dianne Feinstein at a news conference on investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Schumer, center, Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Dianne Feinstein at a news conference on investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats have laid out their demands for independent investigations into potential contact between Russian officials and members of President Donald Trump’s team, and are hopeful public outcry will force the administration and congressional Republicans to comply.

Democrats held what they called an “emergency” caucus meeting Wednesday to discuss former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation following revelations he discussed sanctions with Russia’s  ambassador to the United States before Trump took office. The meeting also followed a New York Times report that a handful of Trump officials had been in contact with Russian intelligence officers leading up to the presidential election.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they want answers on contact with Russian officials and Russian interference in the presidential race. But Democrats emerged from their meeting emboldened to demand an independent investigation in the legislative and executive branches.

“Senate Democrats are committed to not allowing this issue to become a political, partisan exercise,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-NY., told reporters.“We will be fact-based, we will be measured, we will be thorough.”

Schumer reiterated that the Intelligence committees will take the lead on an investigation and called on those panels to make the investigation’s findings available to the public “to the maximum extent possible.”

Democrats were also united in calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any Justice Department investigation into whether there was criminal wrongdoing. 

They cited a Justice Department ethics guideline that states, “No DOJ employee may participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution, or who would be directly affected by the outcome.”

Sessions, Democrats argued, would not be impartial given that he was the first GOP senator to endorse Trump and was one of Trump’s chief supporters throughout the campaign, as well as a member of his campaign’s inner circle.

“If this trail leads to the Oval Office, the person investigating that trail should not be the same person who helped put President Trump there — end of story,” Schumer said.

Some GOP senators rejected or were indecisive about whether Sessions should step aside.

“I think that’s ridiculous,” said Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, before heading into his office late Wednesday morning.

“I don’t know,” said Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “What I’m trying to do is separate the things that are easy political hits from the substance that we need to deal with. I don’t want to get hysterical about this.”

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley told Roll Call he expects Sessions to follow Justice Department regulations, though he declined to say if Sessions should recuse himself from an investigation into Russian contacts with Trump officials.

“The only thing I can say is that I expect the attorney general to follow the law and the regulations that are involved with that issue,” Grassley said. “Whatever the law says and whatever the regulations say has to be followed.”

Sessions indicated in his written responses to the Judiciary Committee that he may not be inclined to recuse himself from investigations involving Trump.

“If merely being a supporter of the President’s during the campaign warranted recusal from involvement in any matter involving him, then most typical presidential appointees would be unable to conduct their duties. I am not aware of a basis to recuse myself from such matters,” Sessions wrote. “If a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with Department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed,” he continued.

In addition to a Sessions recusal, Democrats also called on administration, transition and campaign officials not to destroy records of Russian contacts. They also demanded campaign and transition officials called to testify on these issues to do so in public and under oath. 

But some Democrats admitted they do not have many tools to ensure their demands are met.

“We will exercise our legal, constitutional rights,” said Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin. “Being in the minority there are limitations, political limitations. But I don’t believe the American people are going to sit still for a cover-up.”

Asked for specifics on what Democrats can do, the Illinois Democrat declined to go into detail.

“We talked about some of them this morning,” Durbin said, referring to the caucus meeting. “We’re at the earliest stages of committee jurisdictions as well as the rights of individual members. But it’s very early.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said he believed public outcry and constant news coverage of the issue could ensure Republicans also push for an independent investigation.

“Ultimately if Republicans want to cover this up, it’s hard for us to force their hand,” Murphy said.“But with this scandal dominating the news every day and every night, I don’t think Republicans are going to stand in the way of a real investigation.”

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