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The firing of ex-FBI director James Comey has prompted new questions about whether Donald Trump engaged in obstruction of justice. Photo: Reuters
The firing of ex-FBI director James Comey has prompted new questions about whether Donald Trump engaged in obstruction of justice. Photo: Reuters

Donald Trump, aides on defensive as Russia probes intensify

Fired FBI director James Comey is to appear in front of a Senate panel, where he will be questioned on whether Donald Trump told him to drop the Russia probe

Washington: Congressional investigations into whether US President Donald Trump or his associates had improper contact with Russia are heating up, with the probes shifting toward a dramatic, public phase that’s inching closer to the president himself.

Fired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey may testify in an open session as soon as next week in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he will face intense questioning over whether Trump urged him to drop the FBI’s Russia probe.

The Senate panel also plans to hear at some point from Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest White House aides. It’s unclear whether that appearance would be in public or behind closed doors, but his testimony takes on new significance after revelations that the FBI is looking at his discussions about setting up a back-channel communication with Russia after the election.

Kushner agreed to cooperate with the Senate probe on 27 March, when his meetings with Russians in December were publicly known but before the back-channel discussion surfaced. His lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, has said Kushner still plans to cooperate.

Trump has continued to dismiss the probes—labelling them a “witch hunt" in a tweet on Wednesday—saying that Democrats are still sore about losing the election.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as its House counterpart, are still relatively early in the information-gathering stage. The House intelligence panel approved subpoenas on Wednesday to Mike Flynn, who Trump fired as his national security adviser, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time personal lawyer.

Both panels have sent far-reaching inquiries for Russia-related documents to a number of other Trump associates, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former adviser Carter Page, long-time associate Roger Stone and others.

The Senate panel has followed up letters with subpoenas for records at firms associated with Flynn, and the Washington Post reported that it asked for documents from Trump’s presidential campaign. The committee has also requested financial information from the treasury department.

The Senate committee has already interviewed dozens of people—mostly from within the intelligence community—and continues to process numerous documents with raw intelligence at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Those documents formed the basis of the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia intentionally intervened in last year’s election to help Trump get elected.

Personal loyalty

Panel chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia, its ranking Democrat, have said they are moving deliberately to gather as much information as they can before bringing in some of the bigger names for questioning.

But Comey’s 9 May firing has forced them to move more quickly.

Senators are eager to hear from Comey about reports that Trump asked him for personal loyalty and to let Flynn off the hook, among other issues.

“Right now what is important is getting Mr Comey in front of the intelligence committee quickly," Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the panel, said last week. “We have an obligation to inform the American people about what was done to our democracy."

Ultimately, the question is whether there was any collusion between Russia and Trump himself—something Burr has said he hopes to answer. But the Comey firing has prompted new questions from Democrats about whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice.

A hearing date for Comey hasn’t been set.

“The committee welcomes the testimony of former director Comey, but does not have an announcement to make at this time," said Burr spokeswoman Rebecca Glover.

House intelligence panel

The House Intelligence Committee is proceeding with its own parallel inquiry, which is focused more on Russian meddling, leaks of classified information and reports that identities of US persons in spy intercepts were improperly unmasked.

Meanwhile, the web of inquiries and near-daily revelations about Russia have bogged down a president already dealing with poor approval ratings, a stalled agenda and constant talk of staff shake-ups.

Flynn, who previously asserted a Fifth Amendment right not to turn over documents or testify, is preparing to offer some documents in his negotiations with the Senate panel, a person familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.

And Cohen has dismissed any talk of collusion with Russia. “To date, there has not been a single witness, document or piece of evidence linking me to this fake Russian conspiracy," he said in a statement on Tuesday. “This is not surprising to me because there is none."

He refused an earlier request for information by legislators.

“I declined the invitation to participate as the request was poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered," Cohen said.

More subpoenas could be sent if legislators don’t get cooperation. The Senate Intelligence Committee gave Burr and Warner broad authority to issue them. And Burr warned that Flynn could ultimately face a contempt citation if he doesn’t comply with their requests.

Comey and the committee, meanwhile, have to weigh what he can say in public as senators try to “deconflict" their probe with ex-FBI director Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation. Burr said last week he has reached out to Mueller on the issue.

Trump, meanwhile, has kept up a steady series of tweets dismissing the probes as a “witch hunt" hatched by Democrats looking for an excuse for Hillary Clinton’s defeat, while he continues to meet with candidates to replace Comey. He has denied colluding with Russia.

The White House has declined to say whether Trump himself had any role in the reported back-channel effort, which press secretary Sean Spicer said on Tuesday was “not a confirmed action". On Wednesday, Spicer deferred future questions about the Russia probes to Trump’s personal lawyer.

While Trump would clearly like to get the issues behind him, these probes are likely to drag on for months. Bloomberg

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