05 Apr

Americans are asking questions — in Russian

Ron Wyden, whose idea of a good time is a heated town meeting in an overheated high school gym, has noticed a certain similarity in the experience lately.

“There’s the same conversation in places that Trump carried by 20 and that Hillary carried by 20,” muses Oregon’s senior senator. “The conversation is about health care and Russia.”

Maybe because the news about Trump staff contacts with Russians can make voters feel a little queasy.
In December, U.S. intelligence agencies issued a report concluding that Russia had carried out an extensive campaign through computer hacking and its RT television network to support the campaign of Donald Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton. Since then, Americans have seen a steady stream of revelations about people connected with the Trump operation suddenly remembering meetings with Russian officials and agents.

(Since the admissions often came after previous denials, they carried an air of “Oh, you mean those Russians…”)

Wyden’s town hall audiences aren’t the only people talking about the news. Last week, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley demanded an FBI briefing on the issue before confirming a deputy attorney general. Monday, the House intelligence committee begins its own investigation of the Russian involvement – starting with a public hearing featuring FBI director James Comey. Still ahead is a probe by the Senate intelligence committee, on which Wyden has served since the tales of Saddam Hussein’s fearsome weapons of mass destruction.

In January, Comey came to talk to the Senate committee. Recalls Wyden, “He said, ‘I can’t say anything about an investigation.’ When people were done rolling their eyes, they remembered he had plenty to say about an investigation 11 days before the election,” when Comey announced that the FBI had found more of Hillary Clinton’s emails – which turned out to be copies of emails the FBI had already seen.

Now, says Wyden, “I think James Comey needs to give the country a status report on what’s going on.”
The senator also insists that the report can be caused to happen, citing an agreement between Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner that a Russian investigation would have subpoena power, access to classified information and open hearings – partly because, Wyden says, “I insisted on that.”

Meanwhile, looming investigations of Russia’s role in the election have been complicated by the president’s charge that President Obama wiretapped Trump’s campaign headquarters. Trump has demanded a congressional investigation to find out whether or not what he said was true. (As president, of course, he could just call up the FBI and ask, although not on Twitter.) But last week, Burr and Warner, and House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes, agreed that there was no evidence for Trump’s claim – although White House press secretary Sean Spicer said firmly that the president still believes it.

What a lot of congressional figures would still really like to hear is about the Russians.

Ron Wyden would really like to hear about them. And there is something else he really wants to see.

“If we learn from his personal tax returns that the president of the United States is putting personal interests ahead of the country, that undermines the legitimacy of the system,” he declares.
“I’m going to stay on it until we get them. It’s a battle every single day.”

Donald Trump, of course, is the first president or presidential candidate in 40 years to refuse to release his tax returns, which would tell of his business relationships, the source of his money and the locations of his debts. The numbers would help Americans, and Congress, decide whether there was some link between Trump’s personal interests and his policies and appointments.

Trump has said he couldn’t release his returns because he was under audit – although officials say that audit wouldn’t prevent release – and that he would release them as soon as he could. Lately, White House folks have been suggesting – against the polls – that only reporters care about the returns, and there’s no reason to ever make the returns public.

Wyden cares, and doesn’t think he’s alone. “It’s going to be increasingly important to people,” he says, “to see that their interests come first.”

As a senior member of the intelligence committee, which will conduct its own investigation of the Russian connection, and the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, which oversees taxes, the Oregon senator is at the intersection of the issues. He has also introduced a bill that would require presidential candidates to release their tax returns – which might have trouble getting through this Congress, and could also be vetoed by a financially reticent president.

The question, of course, is whether anything significant ight be produced by an investigation by a Republican-controlled intelligence committee, in a Congress that has trouble with just the basics, such as keeping the government open for business.

“You’re seeing a number of members of the intelligence committee speak up,” says Wyden hopefully. “Senators don’t want to be faced with constituents saying, ‘Why didn’t you get to the bottom of this?’”

Especially if the questions are being asked in heated town halls.

Or in Russian.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/19/17.

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