House Russia investigators eye witness honesty
In November testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Erik Prince dismissed Democrats who asked whether the Blackwater founder’s January 2017 visit to the Seychelles was a furtive attempt to set up a backchannel between the incoming Trump administration and the Kremlin.
The same month, former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page insisted to the committee that he had only limited and innocuous interactions with high-ranking Russians during two 2016 trips to Moscow.
Story Continued Below
And in September, longtime Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone told lawmakers on the panel that his contact with Wikileaks was always indirect via an intermediary.
In all three cases, the testimony undercut questions Democrats have raised about the contacts between associates of President Donald Trump and the Russian government. And in every case, recent news reports or documents have told a different story.
As Republicans prepare to wrap up the divided panel’s Russia probe, Democrats fume that key witnesses may have misled or flat-out lied to them. That’s more than a matter of pride: Lying to Congress is a crime punishable by imprisonment.
Whether these or any other witnesses face real jeopardy is far from clear, however. Republicans have shown little interest in pursuing allegations of false or misleading testimony. And lawyers who have handled related cases say that perjury is a highly difficult charge to prosecute — especially in a sharply partisan political climate. The witnesses themselves all deny misleading Congress.
Republicans and Democrats agree that witnesses caught caught lying under oath need to be held accountable.
“If you have enough balls to come to a congressional hearing and raise your hand saying you swear to tell the truth and it comes out that you’re lying, then there should be consequences for that,” Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a top member of the committee, said in an interview.
But Rooney’s GOP colleagues so far are showing little of the urgency Democrats say is necessary to confront contradictions between witness testimony and recent news reports.
The most recent example came Wednesday, when the Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller has evidence contradicting Prince’s November testimony — and that he’s got a new cooperating witness, Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, backing them up. According to the Post and The New York Times, Nader attended the Seychelles meeting and has told Mueller that the United Arab Emirates brokered a meeting between Prince and a Kremlin-linked Russian banker. The goal, despite similar reports that Prince in November called a “fabrication,” was to help establish a communications channel prior to Trump’s inauguration.
“I’m very satisfied with Erik Prince’s testimony,” Rooney said. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told CNN that questions about whether Prince concealed Nader’s presence at the Seychelles meeting “bullshit.”
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) took a different view Thursday, saying this week’s media reports warrant warrants bringing Prince back to the committee —and asking Mueller to make Nader available as well.
“If those reports are accurate, there is clearly a significant discrepancy between that version and what we heard in Erik Prince’s testimony,” Schiff said. “Which is accurate, I don’t know and we should find out. But clearly both can’t be true.”
A spokesman for Prince pointed to his previous testimony when asked to square his comments with the new report. “Erik has nothing more to add to his evidence on this,” said the spokesman, Jonny Garfield. “We are not making any further comment.”
The debate over Prince’s testimony — and of the truthfulness of other witnesses — is the latest front in a partisan confrontation that has crippled the House Intelligence Committee’s standing to extract sensitive information from witnesses and has motivated committee Republicans to agitate for the end of their yearlong investigation.
A Thursday interview with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was the last scheduled interview of the probe, though Democrats have insisted there are dozens more who need to be called.
Once the interview phase of the probe is over, GOP aides say the committee will review the transcripts from its dozens of witness interviews when the probe concludes. Members say the review will include a look at whether anyone was untruthful or will need to be recalled for further testimony or documents.
Schiff told POLITICO that he’s hopeful both parties can work together to determine whether any witnesses lied to the panel — and make bipartisan decisions about whether to refer potential lies to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team for possible prosecution.. But he said short of that kind of cooperation, “we can certainly bring it to the attention of the special counsel on our own.”
Some Democrats on the panel want to cite Stone for false testimony, according to a Democratic committee source. The source said Stone made conflicting statements about the extent of his contact with WikiLeaks, an online clearinghouse for leaked documents that the intelligence community has deemed a hostile actor that worked with Russia to disseminate hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign.
A recent report in the Atlantic revealed direct messages between Stone and Wikileaks in mid-October 2016, after the organization began publishing emails stolen from the account of John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clintons presidential campaign. That appears to contradict Stone’s claim that he communicated with the organization through an intermediary only.
“I have never said or written that I had any direct communication with Julian Assange and have always clarified in numerous interviews and speeches that my communication with WikiLeaks was through the aforementioned journalist,” Stone said in an opening statement delivered to the panel during his September testimony.