Democrats May Seek Prosecution of Witnesses Who Misled House Intelligence Committee
Blackwater founder Erik Prince arrives for a closed meeting with members of the House Intelligence Committee, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
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Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are reviewing transcripts of interviews conducted during the panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and plan to refer any witnesses who lied to the panel to the Justice Department for prosecution.
“We’re gonna be going through the transcripts and analyzing them for any concerns we have with the greater body of information we have,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) tells Mother Jones. “We’ll discuss it with the majority and ask whether they’ll join us in a referral, or, if we think one is warranted, then we reserve the right to make a referral even if they don’t.”
According to a source close to the committee, Democrats firmed up their plans to pursue criminal referrals this past week after their Republican colleagues abruptly announced they were ending the panel’s investigation. Democrats would send the referrals to the Justice Department and potentially directly to special counsel Robert Mueller.
Schiff and other Democrats have recently questioned the truthfulness of the testimony provided by three witnesses: Erik Prince, the former head of the security firm Blackwater and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; Carter Page, a former Trump campaign national security aide; and Roger Stone, a longtime Trump political adviser.
“As additional things come to light, if there are reports of witnesses saying things that are inconsistent with what has been said to the committee, that list could grow,” Schiff says.Prince said during a November 30 committee interview that a United Arab Emirates-brokered meeting he had in the Seychelles with a Russian fund manager close to Russian President Vladimir Putin was unplanned. But recent reports suggest Mueller has information showing the meeting was part of an effort by Trump’s transition team to set up back-channel communications with the Kremlin.
In his testimony to the committee last fall, Page first denied and then downplayed meetings with Russian officials during a July 2016 trip he took to Moscow. In a memo last month, Schiff said the FBI has information that contradicts Page’s claims.
Stone, meanwhile, reportedly told the panel last September that he had no direct contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 election. But recent reports have cast doubt on Stone’s denial.
Prince, Page, and Stone maintain they testified honestly. “I never ever have represented as anyone from the Trump transition, and the only reason I went to the Seychelles was to see” Mohammed bin Zayed, the United Arab Emirates’ crown prince, Prince told Fox News last week. “No one from the Trump transition team knew I was going,” Prince added.
Members of Congress are granted no special power to send criminal referrals to the Justice Department. Anyone can make one. But a referral by lawmakers would draw public notice and perhaps extra attention in Mueller’s office. Prosecutors there have already used false statement charges to win cooperation from three witnesses: Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser; Dutch lawyer Alex Van Deer Zwaan; and former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort also faces charges of making false statements to the Justice Department.
In January, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a senior Judiciary Committee member, sent the Justice Department a referral letter suggesting the prosecution of former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who authored the infamous memos alleging Trump was compromised by the Kremlin and that his campaign colluded with Russia. Grassley and Graham claimed that Steele had lied to the FBI about his contacts with the media, though critics say their referral is legally meritless and an act of political retribution.
Schiff says he is “not sure that any referral is necessary” for false claims that Prince and Page may have made. Transcripts of those interviews are public, so Mueller’s team already has the ability to review and assess those witnesses’ claims against information they have gathered. A transcript of Stone’s September 26, 2017, interview, however, has not been made public.
Committee Democrats have no specific timeline for issuing referrals, Schiff notes. Because Republicans did not force many witnesses to turn over banking, phone, and other records that might support or contradict their claims, he says, “we can’t tell who is telling the truth in many cases.”
But new reports that contradict the truthfulness of witnesses testimony could result in referrals down the road. “As additional things come to light, if there are reports of witnesses saying things that are inconsistent with what has been said to the committee, that list could grow,” Schiff says.
Democrats say they remain open to Republicans joining them in referrals to Mueller, though Republicans would likely oppose such efforts. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a senior committee member, dismissed Democrats’ potential efforts to refer witnesses for prosecution: “Those guys just keep trying.”