WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The incoming Democratic chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) will provide the special counsel with the transcripts of interviews the committee conducted during their investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
After President Donald Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Special Counsel Robert Mueller should have access to other potentially false testimony given to Congress.
"We believe other witnesses were untruthful before our committee. We want to share those transcripts with Mr. Mueller," Schiff told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Many of the witnesses interviewed by Congress went on to cooperate directly with the special counsel. But Schiff argued that Mueller should be able to compare their sworn testimony to Congress with statements to the federal prosecutors.
"We think that the special counsel ought to have the benefit of the transcripts, not only of Mr. Cohen's testimony but other witnesses like Roger Stone, who may similarly have attempted to mislead the committee," he said. Stone served as an unofficial adviser on the Trump campaign. He was also reportedly in contact with WikiLeaks, the entity charged with distributing thousands of Democratic emails stolen by the Russians.
Democrats on the intelligence committee will be pushing to release the transcripts this month. Republican are almost certain to object after blocking a similar attempt to release the complete, unredacted set of interview transcripts to Special Counsel Mueller's office.
If Republicans don't approve the measure this year, Schiff said he will "absolutely" release the transcripts to Mueller in January, when the Democrats retake the majority.
Democrats are also expected to use their majority to reopen the Russia investigation, which was shut down in March amid irreconcilable partisan divisions. Members have an outstanding list of about a dozen subpoenas they are ready to issue in January, including a request to bring back Michael Cohen and the president's eldest son Donald Trump Jr. for additional questioning. Democrats will also subpoena records from Deutsche Bank regarding "credible allegations" of Russian money laundering through the Trump organization, Schiff said.
Republicans have argued the investigation is complete and issued a lengthy final report in April concluding they had found no evidence of collusion between President Trump and the Russians. Democrats disputed the findings.
OFFERING MUELLER LEVERAGE
If other witnesses lied to Congress, it could be used as leverage by the special counsel. "By exerting pressure on those who might have perjured themselves, Mueller could possibly get them to disclose information that could be relevant to the Russia investigation," explained Elad Hakim, an attorney and political commentator.
That was apparently the situation with Cohen who entered a plea agreement with Mueller after prosecutors determined that he "knowingly and deliberately" made false statements to Congress about then-presidential candidate Trump's involvement in a real-estate deal in Moscow.
In an Aug. 2017 letter, Cohen told the House and Senate intelligence committees that negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in Jan. 2016. He later gave written testimony to the Senate claiming the project was terminated in Jan. 2016, before the Iowa caucuses and first presidential primary. Instead, the special counsel found that Cohen and Trump discussed plans for the Moscow project through June 2016, when Trump was presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Other lawmakers expressed confidence that Cohen is not the only witness who falsified statements to Congress. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said the committee will be reviewing thousands of pages of transcripts over the coming weeks to look for discrepancies. "I think we need to go back to that testimony, look at it in light of the new facts and, by the way, make it public and provide it to the special counsel, because I doubt very much that Michael Cohen is the only one who lied to the Congress," he told The Hill.
Other than naming Roger Stone, Democrats were reluctant to specify other individuals they believe misled Congress.
In the course of the House intelligence committee's Russia investigation, they conducted 73 interviews with dozens of witnesses including Donald Trump Jr., White House senior aide Jared Kushner, former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others. The committee also received testimony from Obama administration officials James Comey of the FBI and John Brennan of the CIA and individuals connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Trump-Russia dossier.
Republicans have also accused witnesses of misleading Congress, specifically claiming former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made "inconsistent" statements during the committee's Russia investigation. Senate Republicans have alleged Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson lied in testimony.
Even if members of Congress or Mueller's team identify discrepancies in statements provided by certain witnesses, that does not guarantee they will be charged. "Prosecutors have to make judgments in these cases whether it's worth it to prosecute — if they thought there really was intent to lie — and for Mueller, whether it falls within his mandate," said Victoria Nourse, a law professor at Georgetown University and former counsel for Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The House Democrats are also sending a message to future witnesses, she said. "This is a warning shot."
Schiff affirmed that sending the transcripts to Mueller was intended to deter future witnesses from lying in the future. "If you come and testify before us, you had better tell the truth because if not, you'll be prosecuted for it," he noted.
LYING TO CONGRESS IS RARELY PROSECUTED
Historically, very few people have been prosecuted for lying to Congress, which is covered under United States Code Sec. 1001, Title 18. Before Cohen's court appearance Thursday, only six people had been convicted of perjury charges in relation to Congress, going back to the 1940s, according to a 2007 Quinnipiac Law Review article by P.J. Meitl.
The penalties can be severe. Absent a plea agreement, Cohen could have faced up to five years in prison and fines of $250,000.
There are a number of reasons so few people are prosecuted for lying to Congress and perjury in general. For one, it is difficult to prove intent. But in the case of lying to Congress specifically, there is often too little evidence of an underlying crime related to the lie.
"Any false statement to a government agency is potentially prosecutable and that covers lying to Congress," Nourse said. "Unless you can show the person was involved in some other crime, it just looks like a political fight."
The Justice Department's reluctance to prosecute cases related to lying to Congress is less about bad faith, but avoiding getting in the middle of a "political shootout" she noted.
In recent years, Republicans have been accused of using their majority position for politically motivated charges, including a failed attempt to hold Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress and issuing dozens of subpoenas related to allegedly false statements by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Mueller's scope includes prosecuting any federal crimes arising from connections or coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. That could potentially include conspiracy to defraud the United States, campaign finance violations and charges of theft or aiding and abetting theft, in the case of the stolen Democratic Party emails.
Lying about that would rise above a political fight over a witness saying something misleading to Congress, Nourse said. "What we care about are lies about the underlying crimes. That's a substantive issue separate and apart from what they said to Congress," she emphasized.
The incoming Democratic majority on the House intelligence committee will be able to disclose their cache of interview transcripts with a simple majority vote.
Earlier this year, the HPSCI voted on a bipartisan basis to make most of those transcripts available to the public. The documents were sent to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in September and are still being scrubbed for classified information.