President Donald Trump claimed Wednesday that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., may have violated the law by unilaterally releasing a transcript of a Senate Judiciary Committee interview with one of the founders of a company that commissioned a dossier of information on possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but Democrats promptly dismissed that allegation.
Over the objection of Republicans, Feinstein released the full transcript of Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS. Working for the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in summer 2016, Fusion hired former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia.
Last week, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., submitted a criminal referral to the Department of Justice without consulting Feinstein that suggested Steele lied to FBI agents about his contacts with the media. Specific details of their accusation were not made public.
"I think this referral is unfortunate as it's clearly another effort to deflect attention from what should be the committee's top priority: determining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election and whether there was subsequent obstruction of justice," Feinstein said in a statement at the time.
Although the interview with Simpson was initially conducted privately at his request, he called in a New York Times op-ed last week for the transcript to be made public, alleging that partisan leaks were misrepresenting it. Feinstein apparently agreed.
“The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public.”
A spokesperson for Grassley called Feinstein’s move “confounding.”
"Her action undermines the integrity of the committee’s oversight work and jeopardizes its ability to secure candid voluntary testimony relating to the independent recollections of future witnesses, including Jared Kushner" spokesman Taylor Foy said in a statement.
The dossier, which contains unverified and in some cases highly salacious claims about ties and interactions between Trump, his campaign, and the Russian government, has become a target for Republicans because of its apparent origin as opposition research funded by Democrats.
Some Republicans have alleged that the dossier was used by partisan FBI agents to justify investigating and obtaining warrants to surveil Trump associates, but that has not been confirmed. According to Simpson’s testimony, Steele provided the information to the FBI because he feared Trump was being blackmailed by Russia but the agency was already looking into the matter.
“The fact that Sneaky Dianne Feinstein, who has on numerous occasions stated that collusion between Trump/Russia has not been found, would release testimony in such an underhanded and possibly illegal way, totally without authorization, is a disgrace,” Trump tweeted. “Must have tough Primary!”
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., defended Feinstein against the president’s accusation.
“It was not underhanded, nor possibly illegal, and she was authorized to do it,” said spokesman Matt House in response to Trump’s tweet. “Sen. Feinstein did the right thing in letting the public see the transcript. Republicans and POTUS are just frustrated that they're getting called out on their efforts to undermine the investigation.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., applauded Feinstein for advancing the Russia investigation, and for angering Trump.
“Congratulations to California’s own @SenFeinstein on officially earning her own @realDonaldTrump nickname,” she tweeted. “Clearly doing something right!”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he was troubled by the decision to release the transcript of what was originally understood by all parties to be a private interview.
“I think people giving interviews and private and then told that’s an interview that’s not going to become public and then becomes public, whether they ask for it to become public or not, is a problem,” he said.
However, Blunt, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation of Russian interference in the election, suggested the release of more facts about the case could help put the issue to rest.
“Somehow, we have to bring these investigations to a conclusion,” he said. “If getting more information out there sooner let’s people know just how wild some of the charges are and draws more attention to how this information was put together to start with, I’m not sure that’s the worst thing that can happen in this environment.”
According to Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Grassley and Graham’s referral against Steele left Feinstein with little choice but to act independently.
“The chairman of the committee along with Lindsey Graham unilaterally on a partisan basis actually wrote the Department of Justice with a criminal referral regarding the dossier,” he said. “They cherry-picked facts. There was absolutely no basis for doing that, nor was there any consultation with the ranking Democrat, Ms. Feinstein, or other Democrats on the committee. That’s outrageous.”
He added that the focus should be on alleged criminality within the Trump campaign, as evidenced by the two guilty pleas and two indictments filed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation so far, rather than on the effort to uncover it.
Simpson’s testimony appears to bolster a recent New York Times report that the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia was sparked by other information before Steele even contacted the agency about his findings. According to Simpson, the FBI told Steele his research corroborated information it already had.
“The FBI took it as a credible source,” Connolly said of the dossier, which he has not personally reviewed, “but it was not the original source for the concerns about contacts between the Trump campaign and officials of the Russian government, and we now know that, so Republican assertions to the contrary simply are not true.”
The contents of the dossier first became public on Jan. 10, 2017 when CNN reported Trump had been briefed on its existence and BuzzFeed published the complete document. A BuzzFeed editor defended the decision to post the unverified, raw intelligence Steele collected in a New York Times op-ed marking the anniversary, but one Trump adviser, attorney Michael Cohen, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against BuzzFeed and Fusion GPS over what he called “false and defamatory” claims in the dossier.
In a separate tweet Wednesday, Trump renewed his claim that the Russia investigation is “the single greatest Witch Hunt in American history” and demanded that Republicans “finally take control.”
Blunt indicated the probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is a distraction that greatly overvalues the Kremlin’s role in the election. He also warned that the focus on rehashing the last election may prevent the U.S. from protecting the next one from foreign interference.
“It’s also time we got prepared for our elections next year to be sure the Russians or nobody else can be involved in a way we don’t understand or haven’t protected ourselves against,” he said.