By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Republicans issued their boldest challenge yet to U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, promising to get to the bottom of the relationship between his aides and Russia, and calling for ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn to testify before Congress.
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other senators in Trump’s party pushed for more information as the White House becomes engulfed by questions about contacts between Trump’s team and Russia.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that phone call records and intercepted calls showed members of Trump’s presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the Nov. 8 election in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Flynn was abruptly forced out as Trump’s national security adviser on Monday after revelations that he had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the United States, before Trump took office, and that he had later misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
“Let’s get everything out as quickly as possible on this Russia issue,” Corker told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
“I would want to make sure, with all of this suspicion, that everybody fully understood what has taken place. Otherwise, maybe there’s a problem that obviously goes much deeper than what we now suspect,” Corker added.
The drama of Flynn’s departure was the latest in a series of White House missteps and controversies since Trump was sworn in on Jan. 20. Corker expressed alarm over the way the administration is functioning, referring to “so much back-biting.”
“Is the White House going to have the ability to stabilize itself?” he asked, while also voicing concern that the Russia issue could “destabilize our ability to move ahead as a country.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a prominent Republican voice on foreign policy who has been a Trump critic, called for a broader bipartisan congressional investigation, to be conducted by a special committee, if it turns out that Trump’s presidential campaign communicated with the Russians.
“If it is true, it is very, very disturbing to me. And Russia needs to pay a price when it comes to interfering in our democracy and other democracies, and any Trump person who was working with the Russians in an unacceptable way also needs to pay a price,” Graham told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
In a series a series of Twitter posts on Wednesday, Trump called the reported Russian connection with his team nonsense, adding, “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
Corker called the leaks to the news media a mere “sub-issue,” saying the main issue was “getting to the bottom of what the Russian interference was and what the relationship was with associates of the Trump effort.”
U.S. intelligence agencies previously concluded that Russia hacked and leaked Democratic emails during the election campaign as part of efforts to tilt the vote in Trump’s favour.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday denied there had been any contact between any member of Trump’s campaign team and Russia.
Corker said Flynn’s testimony before Congress “would be a very appropriate thing for us to have happen.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan both dismissed the need for the creation of a special committee to look into the matter but promised the Republican-led Congress would move ahead in existing committees.
The Times, citing current and former U.S. officials, said U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they discovered Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee.
Reuters could not immediately confirm the Times report, which the Kremlin dismissed as groundless.
CNN also reported that Trump advisers were in constant contact with Russian officials during the campaign.
The Times said the intercepted calls in its report were different from the wiretapped conversations that Flynn had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
Trump has long said that he would like improved relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Flynn was a keen advocate of this.
Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador took place around the time that then-President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia on Dec. 29, charging that Moscow had used cyber attacks to try to influence the election.
A U.S. official familiar with the transcripts of the calls with the ambassador said Flynn indicated that if Russia did not retaliate, that could smooth the way toward a broader discussion of improving U.S.-Russian relations once Trump took power.
This was potentially illegal under a law barring unauthorized private citizens from interfering in disputes the United States has with other countries.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Frances Kerry)