The Senate intelligence committee won’t probe whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice over the FBI’s investigation into his former associates and their contacts with Russian officials, leaving the criminal inquiry to special counsel Robert Mueller.
After meeting with Mueller in a classified session, the leaders of the Senate panel indicated that their inquiry would steer clear of obstruction of justice to focus instead on Russia meddling in the elections — and whether there was any Trump campaign collusion with officials tied to the Kremlin.
“Obstruction is criminal — there’s a criminal aspect to that,” committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, told CNN Thursday. “It’s never been part of our” investigation.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman, told CNN: “The criminal piece of the investigation will be handled by the special counsel, but if we find facts we can turn this over to the special counsel” and “report them” to Mueller’s office.
The comments come amid reports that the special counsel is seeking to interview intelligence officials who reportedly were asked by Trump to help tamp down the notion of any Trump campaign collusion with the Russians.
Moreover, the Senate intelligence committee has already grilled several high-ranking officials — including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — about whether Trump sought to interfere with the Russia investigation and the criminal probe into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. In sworn testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, fired FBI Director James Comey laid out in stark detail the steps Trump allegedly took to get Comey to back off the Flynn inquiry.
And on Thursday, the committee will hear testimony from Coats in a classified session — after he refused to say publicly last week whether Trump asked him to pressure Comey to back off Flynn.
Burr said there’s a reason for the committee’s interest in interviewing these senior intelligence officials: To determine whether there was any collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates, a signt that obstruction was not part of his panel’s purview.
“It could potentially have some collusion components to it,” Burr said Thursday of interviewing Coats and Rogers, who appeared before the panel Monday night in a classified setting. “That’s an assessment that we have to make. Clearly from their testimony, it doesn’t seem to have been.”
The Senate judiciary committee does plan to investigate whether there was any interference with the FBI investigations, and the panel’s chairman, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, has not ruled out investigating obstruction of justice as part of the probe. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s ranking Democrat, has called for an investigation into any possible obstruction by the President.
“I think I better wait until I get done with my conversations with Feinstein before I answer that question,” Grassley said when asked if the committee would look into obstruction.