Trump Dossier Could Derail Russia Investigations, Congress Members Warn

The Senate Judiciary Committee and the House and Senate intelligence committees all have looked into a dossier by Christopher Steele about President Donald Trump and Russia. On January 9, Senator Dianne Feinstein (pictured here on November 14, 2017) released an interview transcript related to the dossier. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

After senior Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were stymied by the Republican chairman in calling for the release of a transcript related to a controversial dossier about President Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russia, the top Democrat on the panel decided to divulge it herself.

Senator Dianne Feinstein's Tuesday release of the transcript from an interview with Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of research firm Fusion GPS, was the latest move in the partisan war over the dossier raging on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Taylor Foy, a spokesman for the committee chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley, said in a statement that Feinstein's move "undermines" the committee's work and "jeopardizes its ability" to secure testimony from future witnesses. Trump also weighed in, tweeting that "Sneaky Dianne Feinstein" released the document "in such an underhanded and possibly illegal way, totally without authorization," and called it "a disgrace."

Related: Simpson: FBI heard dossier claims from multiple sources

Republicans in Congress have obsessed over the dossier put together for Fusion GPS by former British spy Christopher Steele, the contents of which Buzzfeed published exactly one year ago on Wednesday. While the dossier outlined alleged links between Trump and the Russians, the Republicans have been more concerned with its provenance and who leaked it to the press. Meanwhile, the Democrats believe that the congressional inquiries into the dossier take up resources that investigators could otherwise spend looking into the larger issue of Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

On January 4, Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham recommended that the FBI and the Department of Justice pursue charges against Steele for allegedly making false statements. The recommendation was the first direct criminal referral by any of the three congressional committees investigating the Russia issue. Feinstein said in a statement that the chairman had not consulted her about the referral, which she described as "another effort to deflect attention from what should be the committee's top priority: determining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election, and whether there was subsequent obstruction of justice."

As the Senate Judiciary Committee remains split over the Simpson transcript and the Steele criminal referral, the dossier issue now threatens to derail the Russia investigation by the House Intelligence Committee, according to Democrats on the panel. While the committee has been looking into Russia's election meddling and links to the Trump campaign for almost a year, a subset of the committee has been pursuing what Representative Chris Stewart, a Republican on the panel, described to Newsweek as an "extension" of the Russia probe that is focused on the dossier. Representative Devin Nunes, the committee chairman, is leading the effort.

Stewart said the committee was initially focused on whether Trump or his associates conspired with Russian agents to affect the election. But the questions grew from there, he said. "From that now are these other questions regarding the behavior of senior officials at the FBI and the Department of Justice, and did they act appropriately, or did they in any way act in a fashion that was inappropriate?" he said. The committee wants to know whether the FBI presented the dossier before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and whether it was "presented accurately," according to Stewart.

On January 3, Nunes announced that the Justice Department had agreed to make available documents and witnesses related to the dossier. The agreement came after a meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

"I think we had a bit of a break in that logjam," Stewart said, "and we expect over the next month or so that we'll be able to get that information and have the time to spend with some of those witnesses." Those people include Peter Strzok, Lisa Page and Bruce Ohr, all senior FBI or Justice Department employees who Republicans have accused of misconduct, and James Baker, who was FBI general counsel until recent reports said he was being reassigned.

To Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, the dossier inquiry seems too far removed from the central tenets of the main Russia investigation, and they feel it has taken energy away from the larger effort.

The Republicans have for the most part only agreed to hear from witnesses connected to the dossier, according to Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic ranking member. "I think most of the witnesses that have been scheduled are witnesses that are part of the Department of Justice or the FBI that are an effort to discredit the bureau and the Justice Department rather than get at the Russian involvement in our election," Schiff told Newsweek. "So those are witnesses with a very different agenda."

The Republicans have seemed less concerned about securing the appearances of witnesses the Democrats want, according to Schiff. "We have come to them with dozens of witnesses that need to be brought in," he said. "Some of these have already been invited, but they have declined to come in and our committee has not pursued it further. Others, we have been asking for months for letters to go out to bring them in, and the letters have not gone out."

Schiff said he views the dossier effort as the latest attempt by Republicans to keep attention off the core issues of Russian meddling and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. "Looking at the history of the investigation, there's been, I think, a motive on the part of some, including our chair, to protect the White House at all costs," Schiff said. "They've moved from one diversion to another." He said he is considering releasing his witness list publicly "if the majority does shut down the investigation or attempts to do so."

Representative Mike Quigley, another Democrat on the committee, agreed. "They don't want this to continue because it embarrasses them," he said about the Republicans, adding that the dossier issue is "a distraction, a shiny object, with absolutely no bipartisan effort."

He added, "The bottom line is if the dossier didn't exist, the Russia investigation would still be there," he told Newsweek. "The Russia investigation, one of its four points is not 'Is the dossier accurate' or 'What were its sources?'"

A third committee Democrat, Representative Eric Swalwell, said the Republicans seem to be too preoccupied with the provenance of the dossier and not its claims. "I think it's fair to understand who paid for the dossier and how it was put together and what role it played in the FBI's investigation," he said. "But to do that while willfully ignoring what was alleged in the dossier or the mountain of evidence outside the dossier about personal, financial and political relationships that Donald Trump and his team had with Russia is irresponsible."

The American people deserve the opportunity to see the transcript of the Judiciary Committee’s interview with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. Read it for yourself:

— Senator Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) January 9, 2018

A spokesperson for Nunes did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Representative Mike Conaway, who has overseen the Russia probe, also did not respond to a request for comment.

As of early October, the third congressional team investigating Russia, the Senate Intelligence Committee, hadn't found any useful information about the dossier. "As it relates to the Steele dossier, unfortunately the committee has hit a wall," Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chairman, announced at an October press conference. "We have on several occasions made attempts to contact Mr. Steele, to meet with Mr. Steele…. Those offers have gone unaccepted." Asked on Monday if anything had changed regarding the dossier, Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Senator Mark Warner, the Democratic vice chairman of the committee, said by email, "We won't have anything to add at this time." A spokesperson for Burr did not respond to a request for comment.

The focus by congressional Republicans on the Steele assessment comes even as a December report in The New York Times downplayed its significance. Republicans have claimed that the dossier triggered the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, but the Times report said the bureau instead acted largely in response to comments that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos made in May 2016 to an Australian diplomat.

The attempts to investigate the dossier also seem part of larger efforts to scrutinize the Justice Department and FBI as Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe advances. But Stewart, the House Intelligence Committee Republican, said, "My interest is in no way to cast suspicion or doubts upon the Mueller investigation…. But there's a difference between criticizing an agency in general and everyone who works there, and criticizing some of the leadership within an agency." He and his colleagues are focused on the latter, he said.

A representative for Fusion GPS did not respond to a request for comment. A lawyer who represents the firm also did not respond to a request. "Today, amid a growing criminal inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, congressional Republicans are again chasing rabbits," Simpson and co-founder Peter Fritsch wrote in a January 2 opinion piece for the Times. "We know because we're their favorite quarry."