×

Sen. Mark Warner on the Russia probe: 'More of this picture's coming into view'

  • "There's pressure on me from a number of Democrats who presume the president is guilty and, you know, 'Let's just get to that,'" Warner told CNBC.
  • "I think [Senate Intelligence Committee members will] also agree that there was a huge amount of contact between the Russians and officials from the Trump organization and campaign."
  • "The nature of that contact and what may or may not have been exchanged, I think the jury is still out."
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) speaks with CNBC's John Harwood at the Alexandrian Hotel in Alexandria, VA.
Pat Anastasi | CNBC

Sen. Mark Warner sat down with CNBC's John Harwood to discuss a range of topics, including the Senate Intelligence Committee's probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with President Donald Trump's campaign. What follows is an edited, condensed excerpt of the conversation.

CNBC's John Harwood: You are leading, with Sen. Burr of North Carolina, the intelligence investigation into Russian interference. Some people look at your probe as an oasis where you have two guys in fact working across party lines in a cooperative way. Is that cooperation living up to the hype?

Sen. Mark Warner: Listen, there's always going to be pressure. There's pressure on me from a number of Democrats who presume the president is guilty and, you know, "Let's just get to that." There's pressure on Richard Burr from Republicans who say, "nothing here, just get rid of this investigation." What we both committed to is we're going to follow the facts wherever it leads.

Harwood: Do you think he is withstanding the pressure?

Warner: Yes, I think he is withstanding the pressure. Do we agree on everything? Absolutely not. But I think we're a year into this, we've got a number of additional witnesses that we need to see. And I think that we have on many of the issues, broad bipartisan consensus. We have absolute consensus that was already reached by all of the leaders of the intelligence community, that Russia massively intervened in our elections in a way to try to help Trump and hurt Clinton. We have complete agreement that Russia tried to intervene in 21 of our states' electoral systems. And we hope to have recommendations early next year so that our systems can be better protected.

My business was in the tech field, and I'm a big supporter of tech companies. You look at the Googles, the Facebooks, the Twitters that are great iconic American companies. But they have created, within this kind of social media ecosystem, a dark underbelly. I think we've shown that underbelly. And with a little nudging and public exposure, the companies are starting to change their practices.

There's never been a campaign in modern American history that has had this much contact with a foreign power both before the election and in the immediate aftermath. We do know the Russians were proffering, you know, dirt on Clinton. What exactly was the reaction from the Trump campaign and campaign officials? I'm still reserving judgment until we see all of the principal figures in front of the committee members themselves.

Harwood: Donald Trump Jr. spent hours before your staff. Do you and Sen. Burr agree that you members should also interview Donald Trump Jr. and that it should be in public?

Warner: We're going to have to work through the venue. That's part of our discussion.

Harwood: So no consensus on it.

Warner: The chairman and I will work through that. But what we do agree on is that the vast majority of members of the committee, Democrat and Republican alike, before they put their names on a final report, they're going to want to have a chance to talk to the principal figures whether it's Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Mr. Cohen, who's one of the Trump's primary lawyers.

Harwood: What about the president?

Warner: On the president, I think there needs to be more nexus established. We'll see where special counsel Mueller's investigation leads.

Harwood: Are you highly confident that you'll end up with a unified single report?

Warner: I'm highly confident that on issues around electoral interference, around the tactics the Russians used in terms of helping one candidate and hurting the other, around the question of how social media was used and abused, that there will be broad bipartisan consensus. I think we'll also agree that there was a huge amount of contact between the Russians and officials from the Trump Organization and campaign. The nature of that contact and what may or may not have been exchanged, I think the jury is still out.

Harwood: You've said in the past that on this issue of collusion, you've seen smoke but not fire. Is that still the case?

Warner: I think more and more of this picture's coming into view. I think some of the comments that I made literally months ago, I would amend those comments in terms of where we stand today.

Harwood: You've seen fire?

Warner: I'm not going to jump to any of those final conclusions until we go through this whole process. But I've been absolutely amazed at the number and extent of the contacts and the fact that it feels like almost every week or two, we find a new line of inquiry.

In the case of Gen. Flynn, the fact that he settled on pleading guilty to only one count says to me that probably Gen. Flynn has got a lot more of the story to tell. And since Gen. Flynn was intimately involved in the campaign and obviously one of the major contacts with the Russians throughout the transition, I think he's got very, very important facts to shed on this case.

Harwood: Do you believe the president knew he was reaching out to Ambassador Kislyak in December about sanctions?

Warner: I don't know. I do know that the president has been obsessed about this investigation, the president continues to call it "fake news" even though every one of his intelligence officials acknowledges this, even though every foreign leader acknowledges because we've seen similar Russian tactics take place in France, in The Netherlands. We're seeing the first in effect shots fired in the way 21st century warfare is going to be carried out.

Harwood: Now, there are some people who have looked at how the president's responded and not accepted some of the intelligence. They say, "Well, that's about ego." That's about not wanting to accept facts that would seem to call into question the legitimacy of his election victory. Is that what you think it is? Or do you think that it is something else?

Warner: John, I don't know. For someone who claims as he does that "There's no there there" – if there is no there there, then he ought to be much more collaborative on trying to get this investigation behind him. Instead, we have these constant actions including firing — you can't make some of this stuff up — firing the FBI director and then bragging about it to the Russian foreign minister where he calls America's senior law enforcement official "a nut job" and says, "This is going to take the pressure off of the so-called Russia thing." When he is out on a regular basis criticizing Bob Mueller.

Again, let's step back for a moment. We have an FBI director who was appointed by this president, who has been a longtime contributor to Republican candidates. We have a deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who is a well-known Republican, senior official at the Justice Department. We had Jim Comey who was a known Republican for his whole time as FBI director. And we have Bob Mueller, who beyond being a well-respected law enforcement official and Vietnam vet, was appointed by Republicans as head of the FBI.

So the whole leadership of the FBI and this investigation are all people with impeccable Republican credentials. Yet, this president is still disdainful of all of them. And I think any American, and even somebody like myself who wants to give him the benefit of the doubt says, you know, "This seems a little weird. This is a little screwy."

"Speakeasy with John Harwood" is now available as a podcast. Subscribe on iTunes and listen to Harwood's extended conversations with political decision-makers.