Watch the Top Democrat on the Senate Intel Committee Explain the Trump-Russia Scandal

“There’s clearly a lot of smoke.”


The US Senate intelligence committee on Thursday convened its first hearing in its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In stark contrast to the House intelligence committee’s investigation—which has been brought to a halt by the partisan brinksmanship of the panel’s chair, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.)—the leaders of the Senate investigation say they are trying to keep things as bipartisan and transparent as possible. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice chairman, used his opening statement to sum up Russia’s election interference—and the ways that Trump associates may have been connected to this Kremlin operation. “We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but there’s clearly a lot of smoke,” Warner said. Read his full statement below:

Today’s hearing is important to help understand the role Russia played in the 2016 presidential elections.

As the U.S. intelligence community unanimously assessed in January of this year, Russia sought to hijack our democratic process, and that most important part of our democratic process, our Presidential elections. As we’ll learn today, Russia’s strategy and tactics are not new, but their brazenness certainly was.

This hearing is also important because it is open, as the chairman mentioned—which is unusual for this Committee. Due to the classified nature of our work, we typically operate behind closed doors.

But today’s public hearing will help, I hope, the American public writ large understand how the Kremlin made effective use of its hacking skills to steal and weaponize information and engage in a coordinated effort to damage a particular candidate and to undermine public confidence in our democratic process. 

Our witnesses today will help us to understand how Russia deployed this deluge of disinformation in a broader attempt to undermine America’s strength and leadership throughout the world.

We simply must – and we will – get this right. The Chairman and I agree it is vitally important that we do this as a credible, bipartisan, and transparent a manner as possible. As was said yesterday at our press conference, Chairman Burr and I trust each other, and equally important, we trust our colleagues on this committee that we are going to move together and we are going to get to the bottom of it and get it right.

As this hearing begins, let’s take a minute to review what we know: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine our election.

First, Russia struck at our political institutions by electronically breaking into the headquarters of one of our political parties and stealing vast amounts of information. Russian operatives also hacked emails to steal personal messages and other information from individuals ranging from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

This stolen information was then “weaponized.” We know that Russian intelligence used the “Guccifer 2.0” persona and others like WikiLeaks and seemingly choreographed times that would cause maximum damage to one candidate. They did this with an unprecedented level of sophistication about American presidential politics that should be a line of inquiry for us on this committee and candidly, while it helped one candidate this time, they are not favoring one party over another, and consequently should be a concern for all of us.

Second, Russia continually sought to diminish and undermine our trust in the American media by blurring our faith in what is true and what is not. Russian propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik successfully produced and peddled disinformation to American audiences in pursuit of Moscow’s preferred outcome.

This Russian “propaganda on steroids” was designed to poison the national conversation in America. The Russians employed thousands of paid Internet trolls and bot-nets to push-out disinformation and fake news at high volume, focusing this material onto your Twitter and Facebook feeds and flooding our social media with misinformation.

This fake news and disinformation was then hyped by the American media echo chamber and our own social media networks to reach – and potentially influence – millions of Americans.  

This is not innuendo or false allegations. This is not fake news. This is actually what happened to us, and understanding all aspects of this attack is important.

Russia continues these sorts of actions as we speak. Some of our close allies in Europe are experiencing exactly the same kind of interference in their political processes. Germany has said that its Parliament has been hacked. French presidential candidates right now have been the subjects of Russian propaganda and disinformation. In the Netherlands, their recent elections, the Dutch hand-counted their ballots because they feared Russian interference in their electoral process.

Perhaps, most critically for us, there is nothing to stop them from doing this all over again in 2018, for those of you who are up, or in 2020, as Americans again go back to the polls.

In addition to what we already know, any full accounting must also find out what, if any, contacts, communications or connections occurred between Russia and those associated with the campaigns themselves.

I will not prejudge the outcome of our investigation. We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but there’s clearly a lot of smoke.  For instance:

•  An individual associated with the Trump campaign accurately predicted the release of hacked emails weeks before it happened. This same individual also admits to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the Russian intelligence persona responsible for these cyber operations.
•  The platform of one of our two major political parties was mysteriously watered-down in a way which promoted the interests of President Putin — and no one seems to be able to identify who directed that change in the platform.
•  A campaign manager of one campaign, who played such a critical role in electing the President, was forced to step down over his alleged ties to Russia and its associates.
•  Since the election, we have seen the President’s national security advisor resign — and his Attorney General recuse — himself over previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian government.
•  And, of course, in the other body, on March 20th, the Director of the FBI publicly acknowledged that the Bureau is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts.”

I want to be clear, at least for me: This investigation is not about whether you have a “D” or an “R” next to your name. It is not about re-litigating last fall’s election. It is about clearly understanding and responding to this very real threat.

It’s also, I believe, about holding Russia accountable for this unprecedented attack against our democracy. And it is about arming ourselves so we can identify and stop it when it happens again. And trust me: it will happen again if we don’t take action.

I would hope that the President is as anxious as we are to get to the bottom of what happened. But I have to say editorially, that the President’s recent conduct — with his wild and uncorroborated accusations about wiretapping, and his inappropriate and unjustified attacks on America’s hard-working intelligence professionals — does give me grave concern.

This Committee has a heavy weight of responsibility to prove that we can continue to put our political labels aside and get to the truth.  I believe we can get there. I have seen firsthand, and I say this to our audience, how seriously members on both sides of this dais have worked so far on this sensitive and critical issue.

As the Chairman and I have said repeatedly, this investigation will follow the facts where they lead us .If at any time I believe we’re not going to be able to get those facts, and we’re working together very cooperatively to make sure we get the facts we need from the intelligence community, we will get that done.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you for your commitment to this serious work and your commitment to  keeping this bipartisan cooperation, at least, if not all across the hill, alive in this committee. Thank you very much.