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Senate Intel Committee Previews Probe Into Russia's Election Meddling

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On Capitol Hill, two investigations are looking at Russia's election meddling and possible ties to the Trump campaign. One of those inquiries got off to a dramatic start last week in the House Intelligence Committee. Since then, it has stalled. Hearings have been canceled, and there are calls for the Republican chairman to recuse himself.

The other investigation being carried out by the Senate Intelligence Committee has its first open hearing tomorrow. The panel's top two leaders updated reporters today on their investigation, and joining us to talk about all this is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Hi, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What specifically is the Senate inquiry trying to get to the bottom of?

WELNA: Well, according to its leaders, there are two big questions this committee is trying to answer. One is, how did Russia try to influence or alter last year's presidential election, whether that was hacking and leaking or spreading fake news? The other question - what kinds of contacts did either presidential campaign have with Russian officials, and did those contacts influence the election?

We were told seven committee staffers have already reviewed thousands of pages of intelligence documents and that more are being sought and that for the first time ever, they have access to documents that previously could be seen only by the eight top intelligence committee and congressional leaders.

SHAPIRO: The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, was an adviser to the Trump campaign, so how far do you think he will take an investigation that could be politically damaging to this president?

WELNA: Well, you know, Burr has even made some phone calls to reporters after the White House asked him to help push back on a New York Times story about Trump campaign aides talking to Russian officials. So at today's news conference, Burr was asked whether he could be the impartial leader that's needed for this investigation to be credible, and here's how he answered.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RICHARD BURR: I'll do something I've never done. I'll admit that I voted for him. We always hide who we vote for. That's part of the democratic process. But I've got a job in the United States Senate, and I take that job extremely serious. It overrides any personal beliefs that I have or loyalties that I might have.

WELNA: Burr added that he and Mark Warner, the committee's ranking Democrat, might have their political differences, but they take their oversight responsibilities on the committee equally seriously. And Warner completely agreed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MARK WARNER: I have confidence in Richard Burr that we together with the members of our committee are going to get to the bottom of this, and that's - if you get nothing else from today, take that statement to the bank.

SHAPIRO: David, how does that tone compare to what we have heard on the House side from the leaders of that investigation?

WELNA: Well, it's quite a contrast. Like their Senate counterparts, the top two members of the House committee did start out stating their common purpose, but things really fell apart after their first hearing where FBI Director James Comey said ties between Russia and the Trump campaign were being investigated. And he rejected Trump's claims that he'd been wiretapped by President Obama.

Another open hearing that was to have taken place yesterday got unilaterally cancelled by that panel's Republican chairman, Devin Nunes. And it's come out this week that Nunes went to the White House grounds last week to look at classified documents that he says suggest Trump and his associates may have been improperly identified in surveillance of foreign officials. Democrats are now demanding he recuse himself. He's saying he won't. In a word, it's a mess.

SHAPIRO: Right, so the House investigation at the moment seems paralyzed. It might not move forward. Assuming that the Senate investigation does not run into similar problems and is actually able to produce some kind of final bipartisan report, how long do you expect this might take?

WELNA: Well, Chairman Burr says they've already got 20 people the committee plans to interview. One of them is Trump's son in law, Jared Kushner. Though, it's not clear just when that will happen. Another person Burr indicated is on that list is Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser whom Trump fired. And Warner said he'd like to talk to Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general whom Trump also fired. There may be a final bipartisan report, but don't expect anything before the end of the Year at the soonest.

SHAPIRO: NPR's David Welna, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.