By Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats on a congressional panel say members of its Republican majority are trying to sabotage an investigation into suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, raising concerns the two parties will reach contradictory conclusions.
Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee have coached witnesses, scheduled interviews without first requesting important documents, and many fail to attend witness interviews, four sources close to the investigation said.
On one occasion, three sources said, Republican Representative Trey Gowdy told Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House aide, that he was testifying voluntarily and could leave whenever he liked. After about two-and-a-half hours, one of the sources said, Kushner took the cue and left before Democrats had finished questioning him. Kushner’s lawyer and Gowdy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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The panel has heard from about 10 witnesses, the sources said. But given the lack of preparation and the absence of many Republican members, hearings amount to “going through the motions” rather than a serious investigation, one source said.
Two Republican committee staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also criticized what they called a partisan effort to discredit rather than investigate allegations that some aides or advisers to Republican Trump’s election campaign may have colluded with Russia, which has been under U.S. sanctions for several years.
The conduct of the probe so far, those staffers and other sources said, threatens to undermine the committee’s reputation for bipartisanship under former Republican chairman Mike Rogers, who led the committee from 2011 to 2015.
Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said that while she would like to believe the panel “will come together unified in its conclusions and submit a joint report, I’m not overly optimistic that this will be the case.”
Another committee Democrat, Representative Eric Swalwell, said, “That is our North Star, unity and consensus on what happened. Now along the way we’ve seen disruptive behavior that has I think impeded our investigation, and despite that we still are doggedly trying to find out what happened.”
Asked for comment, Jack Langer, a spokesman for Republican committee chairman, Representative Devin Nunes, said in a statement: “With this article, Reuters is acting as a loyal, obedient stenographer of the Democrats’ utterly baseless complaints.”
Langer did not respond to Reuters’ request to address specific complaints made by the Democrats.
Democratic members and staffers on the committee have said nothing publicly about the Republicans’ possible motives for fear of destroying any chance to produce a bipartisan report, four sources said.
Democrats said that the Republicans appear to want to undermine the credibility of Fusion GPS, a political research firm that commissioned former British spy Christopher Steele to produce a dossier on Trump while he was running for president.
Investigators are attempting to confirm or dismiss the contents of Steele’s dossier, which outlined Russian financial and personal links to Trump’s campaign and associates.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign of hacking and propaganda to undermine faith in the U.S. election, denigrate Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and help Trump. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Trump disputes he and his associates colluded with Moscow, calling probes by Congress and a special counsel a “witch hunt.”
Panel chairman Nunes, a Trump ally, was forced to step aside from leading the probe in April after the House Ethics Committee said it was investigating allegations that he disclosed classified information without authorization. Democrats on the committee praise Representative Mike Conaway, the Republican who took Nunes’ place leading the investigation.
Nevertheless, Nunes is investigating Fusion GPS and Steele on his own. On Oct. 10, Nunes subpoenaed the firm’s partners, a source familiar with the matter said.
Sources familiar with the origins of the dossier said Steele received no money for his work on it from any Russian entity or person or from the FBI. It has been widely reported that supporters of Republican Jeb Bush, one of Trump’s opponents for the party’s presidential nomination, initially paid for research that was later picked up by Clinton supporters.
The House and Senate intelligence committees, created in the aftermath of U.S. spy scandals exposed in the 1970s, have long traditions of avoiding partisan feuds.
Three sources familiar with the House committee’s workings said Democrats had requested a meeting of all members to resolve differences, but the Republicans rejected the idea.
If the rift cannot be healed, the sources said, the Democrats could write their own report and seek to associate it with what is expected to be a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Representative Adam Schiff, the House committee’s top Democrat, wrote in The Washington Post last weekend that he still hoped members could arrive at a common conclusion.
“This remains my hope – not consistency for the sake of consistency, or at the cost of incomplete work, but in the service of a public that has too often been forced to choose between competing narratives of the same events,” Schiff wrote.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Warren Strobel; Editing by John Walcott and Grant McCool)