As lawmakers wait for the details of a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, Republicans in the U.S. House are stepping up their efforts to make public dozens of transcripts of interviews conducted when the GOP was in charge of the investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
In a letter sent April 10 to the Director of National Intelligence, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) - who have led Republican efforts to investigate the Russia investigators - asked for quicker action to declassify 53 interview transcripts done by the House Intelligence Committee.
"As the Justice Department prepares the Special Counsel's report for public disclosure, full transparency demands the public disclosure of (the panel's) witness interviews on the same subject matter," the two Republicans wrote.
The GOP pressure to publicly release more interview transcripts comes as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), has been slowly releasing individual transcripts of interviews done by Congress in 2018.
"I am committed to making sure the American people understand what went on in the investigation of the FBI and the Department of Justice," Collins said as he released the second part of an interview with the former General Counsel of the FBI.
"Transparency matters. We will continue to release these transcripts," Collins added, as Republicans have cheered the unilateral moves.
So far, Collins has released closed door interview transcripts with a group of very familiar names from the FBI and Justice Department who were involved in the Russia investigation: DOJ official Bruce Ohr, his wife Nellie Ohr, who worked on Russian research for the group Fusion GPS, which was bankrolling the author of the Steele Dossier, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, FBI counterintelligence head Peter Strzok, FBI legal counsel Jim Baker and top FBI counterintelligence official Bill Priestap.
What have the details of those interviews shown?
Like a lot of things in Washington, D.C., it depends what side of the ball you're on.
1. The idea of Russian interference alarmed FBI/DOJ officials. One theme which is readily apparent from all of the transcripts released so far is that law enforcement officials felt the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 elections - and the chance that of possible Russian ties to members of the Trump campaign, or people tied to President Trump - clearly merited investigation. "Extremely serious," said ex-FBI General Counsel Jim Baker, as the threat of Russia obviously worried officials. "It doesn't get much more serious or grave than that," said Peter Strzok. "And if there is somebody on his team who wittingly or unwittingly is working with the Russians, that is super serious," said FBI lawyer Lisa Page. "I was very concerned," said Bruce Ohr.
2. Republicans question Steele; FBI stands behind him. For Republicans, there is little in the way of credibility attached to former British Intelligence agent Christopher Steele, as they see him peddling false information to the FBI, which spurred an investigation of President Trump. But it's very clear FBI and DOJ officials are on the other side of that coin. "I think any attempt by a foreign power to gain influence over a Presidential campaign would be troubling," said Bruce Ohr, who met with Steele multiple times, and turned materials over to the FBI for him - warning them who Steele was working for. "I wanted them to be aware of any possible bias," Ohr testified. Lisa Page testified that the FBI ran the traps immediately on Steele's information. "And to the best of my knowledge, we were never able to disprove any statement in it," she said.
3. FBI/DOJ: We didn't leak about the Russia investigation. As Republicans used these interviews to accuse various officials of conducting a biased investigation against President Trump, one counterpoint comes up repeatedly - the feds never leaked the existence of the Trump investigation during the 2016 campaign, knowing full well it could have been lethal for the President's bid for the White House. "That would have been improper," said Peter Strzok, who speculated that a leak about the Russia probe would have had an 'adverse impact' on the President's chances. "That's not how the FBI operates," said Lisa Page, who said, "we all had had and still have incredibly damning information which could have been released." And there was one more point. "The answer is no, I am not aware of an effort to put a spy in the campaign," said Jim Baker.
4. GOP lawmakers press repeatedly for info on Steele Dossier. From the transcripts, GOP lawmakers clearly believe that the Steele Dossier was given much too much importance by the FBI. Lisa Page said she first read parts of the dossier in mid-to-late September 2016. Republicans claimed the CIA had the dossier in August. "Totally surprises me," Page said when told that by GOP lawmakers. "As of August of 2016, I don't know who Christopher Steele is," Page added. Some officials testified about how they were given the Steele Dossier - but not by Steele; Jim Baker received it from reporter David Corn. "I know that David was anxious to get this into the hands of FBI," Baker said. "And being the person at the FBI that he knew the best, he wanted to give it to me." Bruce Ohr said Steele kept after him to get information to the FBI, because he felt like U.S. officials weren't heeding his warnings about Trump-Russia connections. "I think he was very alarmed by the information that he had provided to me about contacts between the Russian Government and the Donald Trump campaign," Ohr said of Steele, who warned that Russia 'had Trump over a barrel.'
5. A growing alarm within the FBI over Trump-Russia ties. The transcripts show that as Election Day neared in 2016, top officials were getting increasingly worried about what they were seeing in terms of the Russia investigation. "I grew more alarmed over time," said ex-FBI Counsel Jim Baker. Peter Strzok said, "the menace that I saw was primarily the interference of the Government of Russia in the Presidential elections." And the fact that Russia was involved made it more explosive - Lisa Page called Moscow, "our most treacherous adversary." But Page also had something very to interesting to say about the investigation and how it related to the candidate himself - "at the time that we opened the investigation, I don't have any reason to believe that it is Donald Trump himself who was colluding with the Russians."
6. GOP lawmakers frustrated by refusal to answer questions. The specter of the Mueller investigation hung over most of the proceedings in the transcripts which have been released so far, as various officials - backed by FBI legal counsel in the room - refused to answer questions which might touch on the Russia investigation. "I'm not at liberty to talk about the topic," Bill Priestap said. "I can't answer that question at this time, sir," said Lisa Page. "I don't think it's appropriate for him to answer that question," one lawyer said of a question to Bruce Ohr. "I can't answer that question," Peter Strzok said when asked about the Russia probe. "It's answerable, but I, under advice of agency counsel, I can't answer that." And then there were instances where the questions got into possible legal problems for the witness, like former FBI counsel Jim Baker. "You're saying he's under criminal investigation?" asked Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC). "That's why you're not letting him answer?" At some points, the frustration boiled over. "So if Mr. Jordan asks the witness, "Have you ever met Robert Mueller?" are you going to allow him to answer that question?" asked a frustrated Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).
7. Those working at the FBI really don't like the Russians. One theme from these interviews is a deep-seated belief at the FBI that Russian Intelligence is not sending flowers to the United States. "I mean, most everybody who works counterintelligence at the FBI has pretty strong feelings about the Russian Federation," Lisa Page told GOP lawmakers. "Russia poses the most severe existential threat to Western democracy in the world," she added. "I think it is demonstrably true that a foreign nation clandestinely putting themselves into a Presidential election, it doesn't get much more serious or grave than that," said Peter Strzok. "If the Russian Government was attempting to influence the Trump campaign in some way, I would think that would be a national security threat," said Bruce Ohr, whose focus had been on Russian organized crime.
8. Little detail on talk of wire or 25th Amendment. While Republican lawmakers were obviously alarmed by testimony that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had suggested wearing a wire to talk with the President - and/or invoking the 25th Amendment to move him out of office - top FBI officials made clear it was all talk. FBI Counsel Jim Baker said, "it was just not something that made any sense to do." GOP lawmakers wanted to know what kind of review the FBI did on the ideas. The answer - nothing. "To my recollection, we didn't do any legal research or anything of that nature," said Baker. "So then what happened?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). "You just dropped it, like, okay, no big deal?" Baker's answer was the same - "it just was one of these things that didn't make sense from a commonsense perspective." From the transcripts, it seems clear that both Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) clearly didn't believe that it had just been dropped - but no other evidence has surfaced so far to show that it was anything other than something mentioned by Rosenstein.
Here are the links to the testimony referred to in this story:
+ Bill Priestap
+ Bruce Ohr
+ Jim Baker, day one
+ Jim Baker, day two
+ Nellie Ohr
+ Peter Strzok
+ Lisa Page, day one.
+ Lisa Page, day two.