The Senate intelligence committee has run a steady and low-key investigation into Russia’s interference in the US elections and communications with the campaign of President Donald Trump, but Thursday marks the panel’s first public hearing, which could offer some insights into where senators are thinking in private.
There’s little chance that Thursday’s hearing will be as explosive as the House intelligence committee’s first public hearing last week, which started off with FBI Director James Comey confirming the FBI is investigating possible coordination between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials and included Trump himself fighting back during the hearing on Twitter.
Still, there is a brighter spotlight on the Senate committee to investigate Russian meddling in the election as its House counterpart has stalled along partisan lines, and even some Republicans calling on the Senate panel to lead Congress’ probe.
Senate lawmakers plan to interview former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and FireEye chief executive Kevin Mandia, a pair of cybersecurity experts, who are expected to answer questions about how Russian agents and an army of trolls utilized “fake news” throughout the 2016 election. And in another panel Thursday, Senate investigators will hear from experts on disinformation tactics — tools used by Russian operatives in the US elections and elsewhere to disrupt elections.
“There were upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over series of computers, which is then called a ‘botnet,'” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said Wednesday. “If you Googled ‘election hacking’ leading up to the election and immediately afterwards, you wouldn’t get Fox or ABC, The New York Times, what you got is four out of the first five news stories that popped up were Russian propaganda.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, meanwhile, said that he is keenly interested in Russia’s attempts to influence European elections and whether Russian efforts in the US offer insights into their efforts to disrupt elections in Western democracies like France and Germany.
“We feel part of our responsibility is to educate the rest of the world about what’s going on because it’s now into character assassination of candidates,” Burr said Wednesday.
Since that hearing, the House investigation has descended into chaos, but Senate investigators have stuck to a steady pace, largely ignoring their House colleagues.
Warner and Burr both said Wednesday they are taking a deliberative approach — trying to learn as much as possible before calling in high-profile witnesses like former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and former Trump adviser Roger Stone.
Seven professional staff from their committee have been given special security clearances to review the documents and now have access to the same materials usually limited to Congress’ “Gang of Eight” — the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate and their respective intelligence committees.
And even though Manafort and Jared Kushner — one of Trump’s closest advisers who served as an intermediary for foreign policy and met with top Russian officials during the transition — have offered to testify before Senate investigators, no date has been scheduled yet for them to come in.
Instead, Warner and Burr said that they have a list of 20 witnesses they plan to call in and have scheduled meetings with five of those witnesses so far. Both men declined to name those witnesses, but Burr implied it would be smart to expect Flynn to be on that list.