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Sen. Mark Warner On Russia Probe: 'This Is An Awful Lot Of Coincidences'


There are new developments today in Congress' Russia investigations. The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, says he's stepping aside from leading that committee's investigation. And that comes as House investigators announce they're looking into ethics charges against Nunes, that he might have mishandled classified information. Nunes denies the charges as entirely false. Meanwhile, the Senate's Russia investigation is ruling along pretty smoothly with no lack of things to investigate.

MARK WARNER: This is an awful lot of coincidences. I'm no Sherlock Holmes, but this sure bears a great responsibility in us to get to the bottom of it.

MCEVERS: That's Virginia's Mark Warner. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. And he sat down with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly today to give her an update on their investigation.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: We met Senator Warner in his hideaway. Aside from their regular offices, all senators have private nooks in the Capitol, places to work on busy voting days. Warner's is deep in the warren of basement tunnels below the Capitol. He was sprawled on a brown leather sofa when we arrived, watching a TV tuned to the live floor of the Senate, a half-eaten bag of chocolate raisins on the coffee table before him. We started with today's news - Nunes stepping aside.

WARNER: I think it's appropriate. The behavior of Chairman Nunes has been bizarre to say the least. You could not have made up a story where some secret rendezvous at the White House looking at classified information and then somehow coming back and briefing the president.

KELLY: That classified information that Nunes traveled to the White House to see has just in the last 48 hours been made available to senators. Warner says it's been sent to Fort Meade, headquarters of the National Security Agency, and that the full Senate Intelligence Committee will be able to examine it. On the other big plotline involving the White House and intelligence, I was still trying to get a question out when the senator cut in.

President Trump tweeted on March 4 that President Obama had ordered wiretapping on Trump Tower.

WARNER: Which, by the way, the intelligence community, the FBI, our committee, I believe even the House committee, have all said unequivocally they've seen no evidence of that.

KELLY: Is there any substance there that your committee plans to investigate?

WARNER: I am not aware of any substance in terms of the president's claim of Trump Tower being wiretapped.

KELLY: Have you seen evidence that the Obama administration engaged in political spying?

WARNER: I have not seen any evidence.

KELLY: President Trump has suggested Susan Rice, President Obama's national security adviser, committed a crime. Have you seen any evidence of that?

WARNER: Listen, we want to see the documents. I have not seen any evidence or any indication of improper. But again, these are serious accusations against people affiliated with the Trump campaign. I have to treat the accusations that are made by the Trump administration officials as serious as well until we can actually get to the bottom of it and look at the facts.

KELLY: Mark Warner, of course, is a Democrat, so perhaps to be expected that he wouldn't leap to criticize the Obama administration. Asked to respond to a Wall Street Journal op-ed that questioned Susan Rice's motives and called for her to testify under oath, Warner repeated he wants to look at all the documents before weighing in.

WARNER: I've not reached any conclusions. We've got to do this, you know, straight up bipartisan. If at the end of the day there's nothing there, I'll be of the first to stand up publicly and say that.

KELLY: So that's still a possibility in your mind.

WARNER: That is still a possibility. I'm not reached any conclusions. But boy, oh boy, there's a lot of smoke.

KELLY: Warner points to what he calls, quote, "the very mysterious connections between folks affiliated with the Trump campaign and the Russians." The Intelligence Committee has compiled a list of 20 witnesses. That list is expected to grow. Some of the witnesses were interviewed this week. Warner declined to confirm which names are on the list so far other than Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Warner promises the inquiry will follow all leads, will be thorough, but he also wants to get it done. Russia is gearing up to meddle in the 2018 election, he warns, and in his home state, Virginia, which votes for governor this fall. Warner believes Russia will try to follow the playbook from last year's election.

WARNER: You know, I don't care who you voted for or who you support, Democrat or Republican, Clinton or Trump. This kind of interference in our most fundamental democratic process - if people aren't upset and outraged by that, then I really fear for the future of our democracy if we can just kind of ignore this and say, well, you know, this is just politics as usual. It's nothing about politics as usual.

KELLY: Senator Mark Warner, speaking today at the Capitol about the sprawling Russia investigation. Not a week goes by, he says, that there aren't new shoes to drop. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.