WASHINGTON — The scope of congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential contest came into sharper focus Wednesday as lawmakers said they intended to question the former chairman of the Trump campaign and to determine whether Russian social media “trolls” were connected to Trump’s election efforts.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to question former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and will subpoena him if necessary, according to the panel’s Republican chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
He said he and the committee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, have agreed to try to bring Manafort before the panel for questioning about the government’s enforcement of a law requiring registration of foreign lobbyists. Feinstein’s office confirmed that they plan to question him.
Meeting last June
Manafort would certainly also be asked about his participation in a Trump Tower meeting last June with President Donald Trump’s eldest son and son-in-law, where the purpose was to hear potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer.
Manafort disclosed the meeting in a package of information he provided to the Senate and House intelligence committees, who have been investigating potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, as is Robert Mueller, the former FBI director appointed by the Justice Department as the special counsel.
“Obviously it would be appropriate for anybody to get into anything that went on at that meeting, and he was at that meeting,” Grassley said.
No letter yet
A person close to Manafort said that he hasn’t yet received a letter from the committee about a possible interview.
Separately, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said his panel wants to look at the use of Russian social media “trolls” and whether they were connected to the Trump election campaign. That concern is “certainly something we want to explore,” along with the Trump campaign’s data analytics, Schiff said. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, oversaw digital strategy for the campaign.
“One of the biggest crimes we’re looking at is the hacking of data, so understanding how it was used certainly needs to be part of the investigation,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, another Democratic member of the committee.
“We want to understand what data was hacked, where it was stored and if it was weaponized at all, whether it was by Russia or the campaign.”
The lawmakers spoke one day after Donald Trump Jr. disclosed on Twitter a series of emails that revealed his eagerness to hear negative material on Clinton from a Russian lawyer.
The exchange showed Trump Jr. conversing with a music publicist who wanted him to meet with a “Russian government attorney” who supposedly had dirt on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
He was told the Russian government had information that could “incriminate” Clinton and her dealings with Russia.
“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. said in one email response.
The Kremlin has denied reaching out to a Moscow-based property developer and his son who arranged a meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. to discuss allegedly compromising information about Hillary Clinton.
The emails published by Trump Jr. show publicist Rob Goldstone telling Trump that singer Emin Agalarov and his father, developer Aras Agalarov, had “helped along” the Russian government’s support for Trump.
Speaking Wednesday in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, insisted the Kremlin has not spoken to Agalarov and has no ties to the Russian lawyer who was at the meeting.
Defends his son
Before departing Wednesday evening for France, Trump told Reuters that he didn’t know about the meeting “until a couple of days ago when I heard about this.” He also said that he didn’t fault his son for attending. “I think many people would have held that meeting,” he said.
Trump also said in a tweet that his son was “open, transparent and innocent” and again dismissed the ongoing Russia investigation as the “greatest Witch Hunt in political history.”
But Trump also refused to dispute an assertion made by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Trump believed him when he said that Russia hadn’t meddle in the election during their lengthy meeting in Germany last week.
“Look. Something happened and we have to find out what it is, because we can’t allow a thing like that to happen to our election process,” Trump said. But he added of Putin: “Somebody did say if he did do it you wouldn’t have found out about it. Which is a very interesting point.”
Trump also questioned whether Putin was really gunning for his victory, as U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded.
“It’s really the one question I wish I would have asked Putin: Were you actually supporting me?” Trump said.
The president’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, said in an interview with NBC’s “Today” that Trump Jr. did not violate any laws by accepting the meeting.
Sekulow said the president was not being investigated by Mueller. “I would know a little bit about it. I’m one of the lawyers,” Sekulow told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Fast paced campaign
As the emails reverberated across the political world, Trump Jr. defended his actions in an interview with Fox News, blaming the decision to take the meeting on the “million miles per hour” pace of a presidential campaign and his suspicion that the lawyer might have information about “underreported” scandals involving Clinton. Trump Jr. said the meeting “really went nowhere” and that he never told his father about it because there was “nothing to tell.”
“In retrospect I probably would have done things a little differently,” Trump Jr. said.
Investigations into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign have shadowed the White House for months.
Still Trump remains defiant. “There was zero coordination” between his campaign and Russia,” he told Reuters, adding: “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”