Top US senators hint the Russia probe is heating up

Mark Warner Richard BurrCNNSens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr and vice chair Mark Warner told reporters on Wednesday that the committee has concluded, for now, that it trusts the intelligence community assessment published in January outlining why and how Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

In a wide-ranging press conference on the status of the committee’s investigation into Russian meddling, the senators also said the committee continues to look into possible evidence of collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

The intelligence community report’s declassified version concluded that “Russia’s goals” in the election meddling “were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and “harm her electability and potential presidency.”

The report also concluded that Russia aimed to help President Donald Trump win the election.

Burr said the committee has interviewed every official who had a hand in writing the assessment, saying that staff and lawmakers spent “nine times as long” reviewing the report as the officials spent writing it.

Over the past eight months, Burr said, the committee has conducted over 100 interviews that yielded nearly 4,000 pages of transcripts. It has also reviewed almost 100,000 pages of documents, ranging from highly classified intelligence to emails and cyber analysis, he said.

The committee has also interviewed every relevant official from the Obama administration about President Barack Obama’s response to Russia’s election interference, Burr said. He said “there are concerns we continue to pursue of collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. He did not elaborate, except to say that the committee had not come to any conclusions and that the investigation is ongoing.

Burr said the committee had examined some of the most controversial moments of the election, including an event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, last year to celebrate Trump’s first major foreign policy speech as a candidate. Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak attended the event and spoke with high-level campaign officials like Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top White House adviser.

The committee interviewed seven individuals present at the event, Burr said, and their testimony was consistent. But investigators will continue to examine the event as additional information becomes available.

The committee also interviewed “every person involved” in what many perceived as a weakening of the GOP’s campaign platform on Russia and Ukraine. Burr said the committee is still looking into the platform change.

With regard to memos former FBI Director James Comey wrote about Trump’s attempts to end the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Burr said “the committee is satisfied that this issue has reached a logical end” as it relates to the committee’s Russia probe.

Congressional investigators are also examining how Russia used Facebook, Twitter, and Google to target political ads and spread fake news during the election. The tech giants came under intense pressure to disclose everything they know about how foreign actors exploited their platforms after Facebook revealed last month that 470 “inauthentic accounts” linked to Russia had purchased political ads between 2015-2016.

Warner said he believes “it is important for the public to see” the ads purchased by the Russia-linked accounts, adding that the use of political advertising on social media “may double or triple again in the next election cycle.”

“I was concerned at first that some of these companies did not take this threat seriously enough,” Warner said. “But I believe they’re recognising that threat now, and they are providing us with information.”

Burr said the committee had “hit a wall” with regard to verifying the collection of memos about Trump and Russia written by former British spy Christopher Steele. He said that the committee’s inquiries and requests for an interview from Steele “have gone unaccepted.”

It is unclear whether Steele is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is conducting a parallel investigation into Russia’s election interference. A similar probe by the House Intelligence Committee is ongoing.

Burr said the committee had been “incredibly enlightened” at its “ability to work backwards” from the dossier between November 2016 up until June 2016. But “getting past that point has been somewhat impossible,” Burr said.

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