Congressional Democrats on Sunday pledged heightened scrutiny of President Trump’s dealings with Russia, spurred on by news reports of extraordinary secrecy surrounding his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the opening in 2017 of an FBI counterintelligence probe into whether Trump worked on behalf of the Kremlin.
Trump’s Republican allies in Congress and his administration defended him, impugning the motives of federal investigators, insisting the White House had been tough on Russia and denouncing as “ludicrous” any suggestion that Trump had been compromised by Moscow.
The intensifying Russia-related furor coincides with a partial government shutdown that pushed over the weekend into a record-shattering fourth week. More than three-quarters of a million federal workers have been furloughed or are working without their salaries, missing their first paychecks of 2019 last week.
There was little sign of any imminent breakthrough in ending the shutdown, whose effects are being more broadly felt with each passing week. Trump spent Sunday morning demanding on Twitter that Congress allocate funds for building a wall on the border with Mexico, a project Democrats vehemently oppose.
In snowy Washington, the president called into a conservative talk show on Saturday night to denounce a report in the New York Times that in 2017, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether the president was acting as an agent for Russia.
Asked by Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro whether he had ever “worked for Russia,” Trump fumed, but did not take the opportunity to directly respond to the query.
“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked – I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written,” he replied.
On Sunday news shows, several leading congressional Democrats expressed deepening concerns over Trump and Russia, following the New York Times report and a Washington Post story about Trump’s strenuous efforts to conceal what was said in face-to-face talks with Putin over the past two years.
Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, interviewed on “Fox News Sunday,” called word of a counterintelligence investigation “alarming,” and said it underscored the need for the wide-ranging Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to proceed unimpeded.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that in order to open a counterintelligence probe of a sitting president, the FBI must have had a “very deep level of concern.”
With a new Democratic majority in the House, freshly anointed committee chairmen are pledging to use their expanded powers to look into Trump and Russia, including the ability to subpoena witnesses and sensitive documents.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who now heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his panel would hold hearings about what he called Trump’s “bizarre relationship with Putin and his cronies.”
In a statement issued Saturday night and tweeted out again on Sunday, Engel suggested that secrecy about what was said when Trump met with the Russian leader – to the extent of keeping his own national security team in the dark -- was of paramount concern.
“Every time Trump meets with Putin, the country is told nothing,” Engel said. “America deserves the truth, and the Foreign Affairs Committee will seek to get to the bottom of it.”
Republican allies of the president said the acts of concealment described by the Post, including Trump’s demand that an interpreter hand over the U.S. side’s only notes of a private meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, were well within his authority.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), noted that “this is not a traditional president.”
“He has unorthodox means,” Johnson said. “But he is president of the United States. It’s pretty much up to him in terms of who he wants to read in to his conversations with world leaders.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Democrats had been stymied in earlier efforts to learn what was said between Trump and Putin during a summit last year in Helsinki, Finland – but signaled that was about to change.
“Last year, we sought to obtain the interpreter’s notes or testimony, from the private meeting between Trump and Putin,” he said in an announcement. “The Republicans on our committee voted us down. Will they join us now?”
Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, added: “Shouldn’t we find out whether our president is really putting ‘America first’?”
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who is traveling in the Middle East, dismissed the possibility that Trump acted on Russia’s behalf, calling it an “absolutely ludicrous” notion.
“The idea that’s contained in the New York Times story, that President Trump was a threat to American national security, is silly on its face, and not worthy of a response,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, said it was “curious” that as investigations were getting underway in 2017, “you had Vladimir Putin policies almost being parroted by Donald Trump.”
Asked on “State of the Union” whether he thought Trump ever worked on behalf of the Russians and against American interests, Warner said: “That’s the defining question of our investigation, and the Mueller investigation.”
He added: “You had Trump say only nice things about Putin. He never spoke ill about Russia.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, suggested that the FBI’s reported counterintelligence investigation pointed to malfeasance on the part of senior bureau officials.
“It tells me a lot about people running the FBI,” Graham, a onetime Russia hawk, said on “Fox News Sunday” when asked about the Times report. He blamed news leaks by people “with an agenda.”
While Trump’s purported toughness on Russia has been a major talking point among his defenders, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sunday he would force a vote on a resolution to disapprove of the administration’s decision to ease sanctions on companies connected to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin announced plans to relax the sanctions last week.
Calling the Treasury Department’s proposal “flawed,” Schumer issued a statement Sunday urging the Senate to “block this misguided effort” by the administration. A simple majority would be needed to proceed.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), meanwhile, played down the latest Russia revelations as of little interest to anyone outside the nation’s capital.
“Washington is obsessed with this,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Beyond the Beltway, the interstate highway ringing Washington, he said, “I don’t find anybody concerned with this at all.”