Arizona Sen. John McCain is suggesting that his Republican colleague, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, is trying to distract from the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.
A spokeswoman for McCain issued a blistering statement on Thursday night in response to a letter that Grassley sent this week to FBI Director Christopher Wray regarding possible attempts by Russian operatives to infiltrate the Trump campaign.
“Facts are stubborn things, and the fact is no member of Congress has done more to push back on Russian aggression, human rights abuses, and corruption than Senator John McCain,” McCain spokeswoman Julie Tarallo said in a statement Thursday night.
“Any suggestion to the contrary is clearly intended to distract from the serious ongoing investigations into Russia’s interference in our election system.”
McCain appears upset with a letter that Grassley sent to Wray this week asking him to reveal whether the FBI provided any “defensive briefings” or warnings to the Trump campaign about any Russian operatives’ attempts to sneak into the campaign.
In the letter, Grassley cited McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign as a precedent for such “defensive briefings.” Grassley pointed to a recent news report from the website Circa that revealed that U.S. intelligence officials briefed the McCain campaign about the foreign lobbying activities of his campaign manager, Rick Davis, and Davis’ business partner, Paul Manafort.
That’s the same Paul Manafort who served as Trump’s campaign chairman last year. John Weaver, a campaign adviser to McCain, told Circa that U.S. intelligence raises concerns about Davis’ and Manafort’s consulting work.
It was revealed this week that Manafort was under surveillance because of his alleged contacts with suspected Russian operatives. Emails that Manafort sent last April, just after joining the Trump team, show that he offered to provide a “private briefing” about the campaign to Oleg Deripaska, Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin.
In 2006, it has been widely reported, Manafort helped Deripaska set up two meetings with McCain.
Manafort was investigated by the FBI beginning in 2014 for his foreign consulting activities. He was reportedly the subject of a secret surveillance order until just before he joined the Trump campaign last year.
In his letter to Wray, Grassley suggested that the FBI should have briefed the Trump campaign about Manafort’s past.
The reference to McCain seemed to be a tool to help justify the request, though the Arizona Republican appears to have interpreted it as an attack.
In her statement, Tarallo said that neither McCain nor anyone on his staff “recalls receiving such warnings from the intelligence community” about Russian infiltration threats. She did address the claim by Weaver, the McCain campaign adviser, that U.S. intelligence had warned the campaign about Manafort and Davis.
Tarallo also said that McCain’s 2006 interactions with Deripaska were “social occasions and entirely incidental.”
“Senator McCain has high confidence in Special Counsel Mueller and our intelligence agencies, and trusts they will follow all of the facts surrounding Russia’s brazen attack on our election wherever they lead,” Tarallo said.
She did not address the core of Grassley’s inquiry, that Russia-connected operatives may have attempted to infiltrate the Trump campaign.
McCain could butt heads wth Grassley on another matter.
The 81-year-old McCain is the only known lawmaker to have handled the anti-Trump dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. Grassley has led the charge on Capitol Hill to find out details about the document, which was published by BuzzFeed in January.
The Judiciary Committee recently interviewed Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that hired Steele last June to investigate Trump.
Fusion GPS had been hired by an ally of Hillary Clinton’s.
Grassley has expressed concern that a politically-tinged document like the dossier may have been used by the FBI as part of its investigation of the Trump campaign.
McCain was made aware of the dossier in November. He quickly dispatched an associate to London, where Steele operates his private intelligence company, to obtain the dossier.
The associate brought it back to McCain who then provided a copy to then-FBI Director James Comey during a Dec. 9 meeting. McCain has been tight-lipped about his handling of the dossier, saying only that he did not know whether the allegations in it were factual but believed that law enforcement should investigate them.