Behind Risch's Defense of Trump in Senate Russia Probe

Behind Risch's Defense of Trump in Senate Russia Probe
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At the blockbuster Senate Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month featuring the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey, the honor of opening statements and initial questioning went to the panel’s chairman and vice chairman. 

The next senator to have the floor wasn’t Marco Rubio, the former presidential candidate -- or Tom Cotton, the freshman senator with the outsize national profile. And it wasn’t either member of Republican leadership on the committee. Instead, it was Jim Risch, junior senator from Idaho, the second-longest-serving Republican on the panel. 

Risch, a former prosecutor and committee member since he joined the Senate in 2009, may not be the most recognizable lawmaker taking part in the high-stakes, high-profile probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, but he commands a powerful position.

“The one thing you should know is all of us on the intelligence committee are schooled in this stuff because this is not the first rodeo for these Russians,” Risch said during an interview Tuesday in his Capitol Hill office. “They’ve been doing this for a long, long time.” 

For Risch, as for many of his colleagues on the panel, the seven-minute period he had to question Comey was likely his biggest public moment yet as an intelligence member. It also encapsulated Risch’s approach to the investigation: simple questions eliciting clear responses, and a healthy dose of skepticism that there is any evidence of wrongdoing by President Trump or anyone on his campaign.

Risch thanked Comey for his service and complimented him on his testimony and contemporaneous note-taking documenting his conversations with Trump. He then established that Trump had not been personally under investigation when Comey was fired; asked Comey to clarify that he believed a New York Times report about alleged communications between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence was false; and spent several minutes parsing the precise meaning of Trump telling Comey, in a private Oval Office meeting, that he hoped the director could “see his way” to letting go of the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Comey made clear he took it as a direction from Trump. 

“You may have taken it as a direction,” Risch said, “but that’s not what he said.”

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the panel a week later, Risch asked him about the routine nature of senators meeting with foreign diplomats -- even asking whether Sessions would have conversations with diplomats if he bumped into them in the grocery store -- and then asked a series of questions that gave Sessions a simple chance to clear himself, and the campaign, of accusations against them. 

It’s an approach that has given Risch a reputation as one of the most ardent defenders of the president and has frustrated some Democrats.

“It’s pretty clear to us that Risch doesn’t have much interest in investigating Russian interference in the 2016 investigation,” said Shelby Scott, spokeswoman for the Idaho Democratic Party, who called his approach to the hearings “shocking.” 

A senior Democratic Senate aide called Risch “one of the biggest shills for the administration.” 

“Many other Republicans have played this much more down the middle and made clear they’re interested in finding the truth. Senator Risch isn’t one of them,” the aide said. 

But when asked about the criticisms, Risch feigned shock that Democrats were unhappy with him and then gave a strong defense of his work on the investigation. 

“I have cross-examined thousands of people as a prosecutor in court. Where I want this to go is I want the truth out, and wherever that truth takes us and whoever is on the receiving end of that or giving in to that, that’s just the way it is,” the Wisconsin-born lawmaker told RealClearPolitics.  

“My difficulty is people are taking stuff like this,” he said, referring to a copy of the New York Times report he questioned Comey and Sessions about, “and hanging it around the president’s neck when there’s no evidence on it.”

While unpopular among some Democrats, Risch certainly has his defenders. Lyndel Strong, executive director of the Idaho GOP, said he “is not one to make decisions based on rumors but to make them based on facts. Senator Risch has a long history of doing what is best for America and Idaho."  

Risch also maintains the respect of his colleagues on the committee. Though few would discuss details given the sensitive nature of his work, senators from both parties praised Risch as committed to the panel’s work and as a strong questioner owing to his prosecutorial background. 

“Jim’s a very bright person,” said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who joined the committee this year. “He is very articulate and asks some tough questions. He doesn’t [mince] words and he gets right to the point in what he’s trying to accomplish.” 

Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in leadership who also joined the committee this year, praised Risch as a “good lawyer who knows how to ask good questions.”

When asked if Risch is a strong defender of the president, Cornyn said he believed Risch is just pushing back against some lawmakers who have formed opinions before the facts are in.  

“I think it’s important to get the other side of the story out. I think he’s done a good job,” Cornyn said of the Idaho senator. 

Still, some colleagues acknowledge that Risch is perhaps more skeptical of the innuendo surrounding Trump than other panel members. Sen. Angus King, an independent on the committee, said Risch “brings a skeptical eye to the proceedings,” though he said wouldn’t go as far as calling him a defender of the president. Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, gave a similar viewpoint. 

“I think he looks at the basic facts … and says, ‘Tell me what I’m missing here,’” Lankford said. “He’s looking at ‘What do we have today? Where are we right now? I don’t see it.’”  

Risch’s eight years in the Senate are the tail-end of a decades-long career in politics: At 27, he was elected to the first of two terms as a county prosecutor before serving 11 terms in the Idaho Senate, most in leadership positions. He was then elected to two terms as lieutenant governor and served two years as governor after his predecessor left for a Cabinet position. 

He said his background gives him a rare perspective. He added he’s taken part in two previous high-profile investigations on the committee – one into the CIA detention and interrogation program, which led to the committee’s torture report released in 2014; and the investigation into the 2012 attack in Benghazi, also finished in 2014. 

The current investigation into Russian interference is likely to remain in the spotlight for months. Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the committee, said Tuesday he felt the panel is ahead of schedule in terms of interviews. But he said he had “no idea” how long the probe would take, though he expressed hope it would not linger into 2018. 

The panel's work will continue Wednesday with a public hearing examining Russia's cyber interference in the United States last year, the U.S. response, and possible threats to elections in 2018 and 2020. Testimony will come from officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, as well as several state election officials.

For his part, Risch said he expects a report that will be “credible and state the facts.” He said he expects it to be misinterpreted by those who disapprove of the president, but that it will be grounded in facts. And, as he has made clear during public hearings, Risch believes there is likely to be zero evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, despite anonymously sourced media reports that hint the evidence is there.  

“Those people you’re talking about not only believe, but they desperately hope they’re going to find evidence. They’re dreaming,” Risch said. Asked if he believed the report would in any way address collusion, Risch cut off the question. 

“All I want to do is see it. If there’s evidence, let’s see it,” he said. 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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