Congress told Trump-Russia investigation now includes a possible cover-up
Investigators into Russian meddling in the US presidential elections are now also probing whether White House officials have engaged in a cover-up, according to members of Congress who were briefed Friday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
That avenue of investigation was added in recent weeks after assertions by former FBI Director James Comey that President Donald Trump had tried to dissuade him from pressing an investigation into the actions of Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Army Lt General Michael Flynn, members of Congress said, though it was not clear whom that part of the probe might target.
Even as members of Congress were mulling over the expansion of the case into possible cover-up, and its reclassification from counter-intelligence to criminal, the scandal appeared to grow.
The Washington Post reported Friday afternoon that federal investigators were looking at a senior White House official as a “significant person of interest.” The article did not identify the official, though it noted that the person was “someone close to the president.”
A person of interest is someone law enforcement identifies as relevant to an investigation but who has not been charged or arrested.
Cover-ups have traditionally been a major part of investigations that have threatened previous administrations. Articles of impeachment levied against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton included allegations of obstruction of justice, as they were suspected of trying to hide other wrongdoing.
“This is a thorough investigation of what happened in the 2016 election, and it can go anywhere,” said Republican representative Mark Walker of North Carolina.
The possibility of a cover-up is the third branch of an investigation that began as a look at Russian meddling in the election and broadened into whether members of the Trump campaign had cooperated in that efforts, according to the briefing, members of Congress said.
The election interference aspect, which was first alleged in October in a report by the US intelligence community, appears to be an accepted fact, said Democratic representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who has been at the centre of some of the more explosive congressional revelations about the Russia probe.
What’s really left to be determined, Cummings said, is whether there was “collusion with the Russians, and the possibility of an attempt to cover up.”
The most visible questions about the possible cover-up have come since Trump took office, and especially in the days since the president abruptly fired Comey on May 9. News reports that Comey had written memos about his conversations with Trump since January have fueled that aspect of the probe.
Cummings called those memos particularly important after The New York Times reported Friday that Trump had told visiting Russian officials in the Oval Office that firing Comey had taken pressure off the Russia probe.
“This new report that President Trump openly admitted to the Russians that he ‘faced great pressure’ from the FBI’s criminal investigation that was ‘taken off’ when he fired Director Comey is astonishing — and extremely troubling,” Cummings said.
On Friday, members of Congress said, Rosenstein clearly defined his role in Comey’s dismissal, telling the assembly that while he had written a memo criticising Comey’s flouting of Justice Department rules for his public revelation of aspects of the Hillary Clinton email probe, it was not intended as a justification for firing Comey. The members said he said he’d been told of the decision to fire Comey before he was asked to write the memo.
Rosenstein declined to discuss the timing of the memo and who had asked him to write it, saying the memo and its role in Comey’s firing were likely to be part of the investigation, which will now be led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, whom Rosenstein appointed special counsel on Wednesday.
“He refused to answer questions and he just kept pushing off everything onto Mueller,” said Democratic representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona.
Despite such frustrations, members agreed that Rosenstein had received a warm reception from both Republicans and Democrats at the meeting, a development that they said showed not only praise for his selection of Mueller to oversee the probe but also a recognition that Republican resistance to an independent probe was futile.
“Everybody applauded,” said Democratic representative Emmanuel Cleaver of Missouri. “Well, almost everybody. Let’s say 95 per cent applauded. Still, two weeks ago, that would not have happened.”
Cleaver said Rosenstein’s opening statement was “clear, concise” and had let those in the room know “this is a real investigation, looking into very real issues.”
“I came out of there knowing that I trust this deputy attorney general, that I trust this special counsel and while he didn’t answer many questions, he had a clear reason for not answering,” Cleaver said.