January 10, 2018

Whitehouse Remarks on Fusion GPS Release and the Russian Election Interference

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, 2018 is going to be an election year. In just 10 months, Americans will go to the polls to exercise their franchise, believing in the integrity of our democratic process. I am here today to discuss a threat to the integrity of that process, which is getting little attention here in Congress–nothing near what it deserves. We really ought to be acting with some expedition to safeguard our elections this November. Yet, instead, the effort is one of chasing down partisan investigative rabbit holes.

What ought to be our job? Well, national security, intelligence, election, and law enforcement officials, many of them testifying before us here in Congress, have made what our job is very clear. We must counter Russia’s well-established election interference playbook. Russia will hack. Russia will bully. Russia will propagandize. Perhaps more insidiously, Russia will seek to corrupt, particularly by exploiting cracks in our incorporation and campaign finance laws. We are warned: Russia will seek to interfere in 2018’s election.

I ask unanimous consent that an article entitled “CIA’s Pompeo says Russia and others trying to undermine U.S. elections” be printed in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.

To quote the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Heather Conley, testifying before Congress last spring, corruption is the “lubricant” for Moscow’s election interference, so “the battle of Western democracies to defeat corruption” must be seen as “a matter of national security.”

Testifying before our Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, agreed, saying of Russia’s 2016 election meddling:

I believe [the Russians] are now emboldened to continue such activities in the future, both here and around world, and to do so even more intensely. If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it. I hope the American people recognize the severity of this threat and that we collectively counter it before it further erodes the fabric of our democracy.

How to counter it? Well, there are two important solutions that witnesses have identified in recent testimony before the Judiciary and other committees here in the Senate.

First, guard against the use of phony shell corporations as facilitators of corruption. Ms. Conley, as I said, wrote that corruption is the “lubricant” with which the Russians operate their interference schemes. She and her colleagues warn that to fight the corruption that gives Russia this channel of influence–and I quote her here–“enhancing transparency and the effectiveness of the Western democratic tools, instruments, and institutions is critical.” One central way to cut off this channel of improper influence would be to require companies to disclose who their real owner is so that Russian influence can no longer hide behind anonymous American shell companies.

Another would be to crack down on the dark money that is flooding into American elections. It is illegal for foreign nationals to spend money or participate at all in American elections. Yet, post-Citizens United, the same dark money avenues that allow domestic election interference–for instance, that the Koch brothers use to manipulate American elections–are right out there to be used by Vladimir Putin. If they can hide their identity behind 501(c)(4)s and other dark money channels, so can operatives for the Russians.

Instead of taking up these important measures or even ensuring a thorough investigation into the 2016 election meddling, we are–to paraphrase the legendary Senator Sam Ervin of Watergate fame–chasing rabbits when we should be on a bear hunt.

Let’s look at a few rabbits that have distracted us from the task at hand. Remember, when Michael Flynn, the President’s former National Security Adviser, illicitly communicated with the Russian Ambassador about sanctions during the transition. Then in the White House, he lied to the FBI about it, which concerned the Justice Department so badly that the Acting Attorney General warned the White House Counsel personally, after which she was fired, but the President then waited 18 days until all of this had become public in the media to ask for Michael Flynn’s resignation. Out of all of that, the topic for many Republicans was the alleged leaks of classified information that allowed the story to come to light–not the story itself of problems at the highest level of our national security establishment. Off people went after the “leaks” rabbit.

Republicans then pivoted to talking about the “unmasking”–remember that word; we heard a lot of it around here–of identities in intelligence reporting and the purported misconduct of Obama administration officials. Trump even publicly suggested that former National Security Adviser Susan Rice may have committed a crime. So off people went after the “unmasking” rabbit.

Next, the President accused President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, an allegation so outrageous that even congressional Republicans have refused to stand by it, but my, what a bright and shiny rabbit it was for the weeks that it was still a distraction.

By the spring and summer, Republicans were railing against purported conflicts of interest by FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a distinguished career public servant.

I ask unanimous consent that this article, “FBI ruled McCabe had no conflict of interest in Clinton probe,” be printed in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.

So off everybody went after the “McCabe’s wife” rabbit.

After President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey to impede the Russia investigation and then told the Russian Foreign Minister and NBC that was why he had done it, the President launched another leak rabbit: a coordinated effort with his lawyers, congressional Republicans, and the rightwing media to suggest that Comey had leaked classified information by sharing with a friend his own contemporaneous notes of conversations with Trump.

Just last week, the President again suggested on Twitter that Comey should be charged with a crime–another bite at the “leaks” rabbit.

In early July, we learned of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Russian lawyer and operative Natalia Veselnitskaya and senior Trump campaign leaders seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton. Republicans tried to distract attention from that mess by suggesting that Veselnitskaya was in the country on a visa issued by Obama administration officials, with some rightwing media–aided by some congressional Republicans–even whipping on the “visa” rabbit by suggesting there was a setup orchestrated by the Obama administration against the Trump campaign.

Then came the “Fusion” rabbit. Because Fusion GPS had worked on separate projects–one with Christopher Steele and a separate one with Natalia Veselnitskaya–some Republicans began suggesting either that Russia had been Fusion’s client for the Steele dossier or that Steele was the unwitting victim of a Russian disinformation campaign.

Then there is the “Uranium One” rabbit, which began when a rightwing author suggested, without evidence, that Hillary Clinton may have been responsible for a Russian state company acquiring uranium mines in the United States. This rabbit remains a topic of investigation in Congress and in rightwing media.

Then there are the attacks on Bob Mueller, which, like rabbits, multiply by the hour. As the special counsel’s investigation started heating up over the late summer and fall, the rightwing began investigating the investigation–alleged conflicts of interest, history of campaign donations, inappropriate text messages, questions about spouses’ employment. But the big one was that the FBI was corruptly involved in the procurement of the Steele dossier and that this had launched the “witch hunt.” This, of course, is a very shiny rabbit.

However, a week ago, reporting by the New York Times confirmed that the FBI did not begin its investigation into Donald Trump’s connections to Russia because of the so-called Steele dossier. This should not come as a surprise. We have already been told that U.S. allies warned American national security officials about Russian interference in our 2016 elections.

In response to a question from Ranking Member Feinstein at our Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee hearing on May 8, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed that “Britain’s intelligence service”–Britain’s intelligence service–“first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious interactions between Trump advisers and Russian intelligence agents,” and the Brits passed that information on to U.S. intelligence agencies. Clapper confirmed that in “the spring of 2016, multiple European allies passed on additional information to the United States about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians.” Clapper said that these reports were accurate and that “the specifics are quite sensitive.”

Now we have learned that Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who pled guilty last year to lying to the FBI, apparently told a senior Australian official in the spring of 2016 that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is something he said he had been told by an intermediary for the Russians. When hacked emails started showing up that summer, Australia’s Government became sufficiently concerned to let U.S. officials know about what they had learned from Papadopoulos.

So you have the British intelligence community warnings, the European intelligence community warnings, the Australian warnings, and Carter Page’s travels to Russia. You have the attribution of the DNC hack, the intrusion into those emails, to Russian hackers. You have the leaking of the stolen emails. You have abundant evidence out of all of that for the FBI that the Trump campaign’s links to Russia required further investigation. It would have been a complete failure of their duty to not have looked further based on all of that evidence.

That is not to say that Christopher Steele and his work are not taken seriously by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials. U.S. security agencies have relied on Steele’s analysis long before any dossier appeared. Steele is a leading Russia expert. Beginning in 1990, as an undercover officer in Moscow, he watched the Soviet Union unravel. He observed Russia’s current leaders ascend through the Russian security services during the 1990s and 2000s. He rose to a senior position on MI6’s Russia desk in London. Since leaving MI6, his reports on Russia and Ukraine have been shared widely within the U.S. Government as credible reporting. A U.S. official told the Guardian that Steele’s reports were “consistently reliable, meticulous, and well-informed.”

But you would never know this from listening to congressional Republicans. They have been repeating, in chorus with the White House and conservative media, the disproven claim that the Russians somehow commissioned the Steele dossier or that Steele somehow got suckered by the Russians or that some deep-state FBI set up the whole thing to pressure Trump. They have pushed to discredit Steele. They have pushed to discredit Fusion.

As one example, rewind to the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, last July. On the morning of the second day of that hearing, the President tweeted: “One of the things that has been lost in the politics of this situation is that the Russians collected and spread negative information about then candidate Trump.” This is Trump tweeting about himself. His tweet came shortly after a segment on FOX News centered on the same question. Other rightwing outlets parroted the same message.

That same day, Republicans in Congress spun out the same premise that Russians paid for the dossier and that the dossier was, to use their word, the “genesis” of the FBI’s inquiry. I hope we have made it clear that this was not the genesis.

While the FARA hearing was still going on, that same day, the gop.gov website published this post:

[W]e now know a Russian backed, Democrat connected research firm, with a history of smearing individuals and pitching fake information to reporters, was hired by opponents of President Trump to compile a “dossier” of supposed Trump ties to Russia.

The information that was compiled was taken seriously by the highest level of our intelligence community along with our media, despite obvious signs that the firm behind it was tied to Russia.

As a reminder, this phony “dossier” helped spark the investigation now led by Special Counsel Mueller.

That is the rabbit we are chasing now.

The uniformity of the rightwing message that day with the White House was telling, but the message–the content of it–is simply not true. In fact, at that hearing, the witness denied any knowledge of any link between Russians and the clients of the Steele dossier.

In the months that followed, Fusion GPS’s founder, Glenn Simpson, spent over 20 hours speaking with congressional investigators, including investigators from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I ask unanimous consent that his op-ed be printed in the Record as a third and final item at the conclusion of my remarks.

During these interviews, he specifically told Democratic and Republican staff alike that the dossier was taken seriously by the FBI because it corroborated reports the Bureau had already received from other sources–remember the British, the European, the Australian we have talked about–and a source inside the Trump campaign. From the Time’s recent reporting, we can conclude that that source was George Papadopoulos. This has all been known for months, but the narrative about Fusion GPS and the FBI grinds on, unhinged from fact.

The revelation about George Papadopoulos and the Australian Government should serve as a clarifying moment about the rightwing effort to undermine Bob Mueller’s investigation of the ties of the Trump campaign and his Presidency to Russia. The FBI investigation did not begin because of opposition research. It did not begin because researchers or journalists or American national security officials fell victim to Russian disinformation. It did not begin because of fake news or because Democrats needed an explanation for losing an election. It began when multiple allies, friends of the United States, warned us that the Russian Government was interfering in our democratic process–something many of them knew about from Russia’s interference in their own democratic process.

We still do not know to what extent that interference may have been facilitated or even simply known to members of the Trump campaign or other Trump associates. We still have done nothing to prevent further interference in our elections in 2018. The special counsel’s investigation and the investigations going on in Congress must be allowed to continue until all of the facts are known.

Here in the Senate, we should stop looking for new distractions, stop chasing rabbits, and start thinking about how we are going to protect our future elections–our 2018 election–against a repeat performance, which we have been warned about, by the Russians or another foreign adversary, for that matter.

As the Center for Strategic and International Studies warns in its report, “The Kremlin Playbook,” we must fight the avenues for corruption that give Russia influence. We must “enhanc[e] transparency” in government and build “resilience against Russian influence” in our elections and elsewhere in American society.

I will conclude by saying that the best measure of our success in Congress will be an America defended against foreign election interference in time to protect our 2018 elections. If we have not achieved that, we have failed at our duty. I do not see us presently on a path to meet that goal. We are less than a year out from election day. We have work to do. Enough with the rabbits.