03.23.17

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy, On the Need for an Independent Investigation into Russian interference in our Elections

I have served in this body for more than 42 years.  When I joined the Senate our country was still crawling out of an intractable war.  I have since seen our country slide into new wars.  I have seen scandals that have consumed this town and our Nation.  And I have seen horrific terrorist attacks that have shaken our country to its core.  All of these events, in different ways, have tested our country.  But I have never seen a threat to our democratic institutions like I see today.  

There is still much we do not know about Russian interference in our 2016 presidential election.  But what we do know is deeply disturbing.  Last night reports indicated there is evidence that certain Trump officials coordinated the release of hacked documents with Russian officials.  And on Monday, the FBI director confirmed that the FBI has been investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia since July.    

Already the Intelligence Community has made public its conclusion that Russian President Putin waged a multi-faceted influence campaign to delegitimize Secretary Clinton and help Donald Trump win the Presidency.  Worse, he intended to undermine public faith in our democratic process.  And this interference did not end on November 8th.  It is ongoing and, according to the Intelligence Community, President Putin will continue using cyber-attacks and propaganda campaigns to undermine our future elections.  This is nothing less than an attack on our democracy.  It should outrage all of us. 

We need to know all of the facts.  We need a thorough, independent investigation.  And we need to send a clear message to President Putin that America will not tolerate future efforts to manipulate our most sacred democratic process—our elections.  But I suspect all of us here know that President Trump will not lead such an investigation.  And he will not deliver that message. 

The President spent much of the 2016 campaign cozying up to President Putin.  Then-candidate Trump refused to call on Russia to stop meddling in our election, saying “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do.”  He even encouraged Russian hacking on live TV, pleading “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”  This was occurring as the President was claiming to have had no role in weakening the Republican Party’s official position on Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.  We learned recently that this was false, and that his campaign played a central role in softening his Party’s stance on Russia. 

We do not know why the President is enthralled with President Vladimir Putin.  It may simply be because Russia is heavily invested in the Trump brand.  Years before the President denied having any financial relationships with the Russians, his son admitted that Russians own a disproportionate share of Trump assets, saying “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”  Just how invested Moscow is in Trump is not known; the President broke with precedent and did not release his tax returns.  But I imagine there would be a collective sigh of relief if the only secret in the President’s full tax returns was that he did not pay his share of taxes.

The President is not the only one in his administration incapable of telling the truth when it comes to Russia.  His Attorney General provided false testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in response to questions from me and Senator Franken about Russian contacts.  And his first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn resigned after lying to Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, also resigned after questions were raised about his extensive activities in Russia and Ukraine.  Now it has been reported that Manafort earned $10 million per year for secret work on behalf of Putin.  Another former advisor, Roger Stone, had early warning of the release of hacked documents.  And he has admitted to having conversations with Guccifer 2.0, the Russian-connected hacker responsible for the cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee.

There is so much smoke here, it is getting hard to breathe.  And the President continues to make matters worse.  This week alone he continued his lie about President Obama personally ordering a wiretap of Trump Tower.  And on Monday the President ramped up his own influence campaign to undermine the integrity of this investigation, tweeting “FAKE NEWS” as the director of the FBI prepared to testify in the House.

I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the FBI’s investigation thus far.  But I have every reason to believe it will eventually be at risk.  We need an independent special prosecutor to lead this investigation and to ultimately decide whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute.  A special prosecutor would not report to Attorney General Sessions—who himself is a witness to this investigation.  And a special prosecutor, unlike the Deputy Attorney General or the FBI director, cannot be fired by the President.

 

Our nation is at a precipice.  We can either confront what happened in our elections—get to the bottom of it with an independent investigation—and make sure it never happens again.  Or we can pretend this is just another Washington scandal, and allow it to be filtered through a familiar partisan lens.  That would be a terrible mistake.  There is a counterintelligence investigation into the campaign of a sitting President.  There is evidence that such campaign colluded with a foreign adversary to impact our presidential election.  This is not normal.  We must not treat it as such.

President Putin’s goal last year was to undermine our democratic institutions—to corrode Americans’ trust and faith in government.  If we do not get to the bottom of Russian interference, he will no doubt be successful.  And he will no doubt do it again.  I hope that we can stand united in calling for a truly independent investigation.  The American people deserve nothing less. 

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