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Senators pledge to 'go where the intelligence leads' in Russia investigation

‘One of the biggest investigations' in years. ‘Unprecedented.’ That’s how the Senate Intelligence Committee is describing its Russia investigation. (March 30, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

The Senate Intelligence Committee's inquiry into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be "one of the biggest investigations" in years and has already involved an "unprecedented" level of cooperation between Congress and U.S. spy agencies, the panel's chairman said Wednesday.

At a Capitol Hill news conference, the committee chairman, Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, emphasized the bipartisan nature of the panel's efforts, drawing a determined, though unstated, contrast with the partisan dysfunction of a parallel investigation in the House.

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The two insisted the Senate committee would carry out a full, unfettered investigation of Russian efforts to influence the presidential election and any potential ties to Donald Trump's campaign. The committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on Thursday, its first in the current investigation.

"The committee will go wherever the intelligence leads us," Burr said.

Burr pointedly refused to endorse White House statements that investigators eventually would find that there was no collusion between the campaign and the Russians.

"It would be crazy to try to draw any conclusions" at this point, Burr said. "We know that our challenge is to answer that question to the American people," he added, referring to the issue of Trump's involvement.

Warner praised Burr and said Americans should "not lose sight of what the investigation is about: An outside foreign adversary effectively sought to hijack our most critical democratic process, the election for president," and "favor one candidate over another."

"They didn't do it because it was in the best interest of the American people," Warner said. Russian President "Vladimir Putin's goal is a weaker United States."

The Russian action "should be a concern to all Americans regardless of party affiliation," he added.

The investigation on the House side has been stalled since the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), canceled a hearing that had been planned for Tuesday at which former Deputy Atty. Gen. Sally Yates was scheduled to testify.

In late January, Yates had blown the whistle on retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was Trump's national security advisor at the time. Yates told White House officials that Flynn had misled his colleagues, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, officials said.

Trump fired Flynn a few weeks later when news reports disclosed the nature of his meetings with Kislyak. Yates' allies said she had planned to give the committee additional details related to Flynn.

Nunes' decision to cancel the hearing came after a lawyer for Yates said in letters to the Justice Department that the Trump administration had tried to place "constraints" on her testimony by asserting her actions as deputy attorney general were "client confidences" that could not be disclosed without written approval.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that the White House did not interfere with Yates' plans to testify and wanted her to speak publicly.

Earlier, Nunes had generated controversy by going to the White House for a secret briefing by a person who, he said, showed him intelligence reports that talked about Trump transition officials. It remains unclear whether those reports provide evidence that transition officials themselves were subject to surveillance or were simply talked about by other people who were surveilled. It's also unclear whether their identities were mishandled.

On Wednesday, Spicer continued to decline to provide information about who Nunes met with. The congressman said he met his source at the White House to look at classified material. White House officials control access to the secure intelligence facility there.

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Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the panel, called for Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after his White House meetings were revealed. On Wednesday, Schiff called for Yates to be allowed to testify, along with former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.

"Sally Yates is willing to testify," the White House "says they want her to testify, public wants to hear from her," he said in a tweet. "What's the holdup?"

Schiff and Nunes are scheduled to meet Thursday — their first conversation since the controversy broke out.

On the Senate side, Warner said he wanted the committee to question Yates, Brennan and Clapper, but only once the members and staff had done enough investigative work to know what questions to ask.

He said he had "confidence in Richard Burr" to run a fair investigation and produce a bipartisan conclusion.

In addition to the House and Senate inquiries, the FBI is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian authorities during the campaign, FBI Director James B. Comey said this month.

Both senators also warned that Russia was attempting to influence elections this year in France and Germany.

"I think it's safe by everybody's judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections," the first round of which is next month, Burr said.

A Jan. 6 report by U.S. intelligence agencies found that senior Russian officials, including Putin, wanted to undermine the U.S. democratic process, hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump's campaign.

Senate investigators are reviewing the raw intelligence that went into that report, Burr said.

But the Senate investigation will look at other evidence as well, noting that since the report was written the U.S. has learned more about Russia's attempt to influence the election.

"What we know today is a lot more than what they knew in December when they went through this process," he said.

The Senate committee staff already has reviewed thousands of pages of intelligence documents and has begun scheduling interviews with a list of 20 preliminary witnesses, who will be questioned in private before the panel holds public hearings, Burr said.

He strongly implied that one of the potential witnesses was Flynn.

"You would think less of us" if the committee had not talked with Flynn, Burr told reporters.

The witnesses, including Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and advisor, will be questioned when the committee is ready, he said.

"Any investigation of this kind will start with private interviews to determine the value of what a witness has to provide for the committee," Burr said.

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Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

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