As vice chair of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has largely stayed above the partisan fray of the Russia investigation, while quietly helping conduct hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 200 witnesses, mostly behind closed doors. But after the redacted Mueller report was released and Attorney General William Barr seemed to create a smokescreen for President Trump, Warner is now ready to talk.
We sat down with the senator in his Capitol Hill office on Thursday, the day Barr refused to appear for a second day of congressional testimony, and he unleashed his muted wrath on the attorney general, WikiLeaks, social media companies, the president and, of course, the Russians.
This interview aired first on VICE News Tonight on HBO on May 2, 2019.
Matt Laslo: You’ve been pretty mum since the Mueller report came out. So just broadly, what are your thoughts on his findings?
Sen. Mark Warner: It's taking me a little while to process it, and obviously I still haven't seen the fully unredacted report. He's offered me as a member the Gang of Eight an opportunity to see it, but, candidly, I want to hold off until we make the case that at least every member of the Intelligence Committee — and I believe every member of the Senate — should have a right to see the fully non-redacted version of this report.
Even if you accept Mueller's conclusion on the over 100 contacts with Russians and the sharing of polling data, the potential sharing of information around the WikiLeaks hacked information, if that wasn't illegal, I think most Americans believe it was wrong. And on a going-forward basis, we ought to put in place legislation that says if a foreign agent contacts you during a campaign, there ought to be an affirmative obligation to report that to law enforcement, to report it to the FBI. I think we ought to make sure that our election system is safer in 2020.
There are two bipartisan pieces of legislation out there that should be no-brainers. The idea of the Honest Ads Act that would require political ads on social media to have the same disclosure as ads on TV or, more importantly, what's called the Secure Elections Act — to make sure that we've got a system in place so there's a paper ballot to make sure that our election systems are secure. Both of those, I think, would probably get 85 votes if we could get them to the floor.
Laslo: What goes through your mind, or just how do you feel when you hear Barr testify? Or when you hear Trump saying “I’m exonerated”?
Warner: It’s not my takeaway at all. I guess one thing I felt good about in our investigation was there was virtually nothing in the Mueller report that we hadn't found out already. I actually thought there were places where I thought the Muller report could have and should have gone further. And that's one of the reasons why I want to see the unredacted version and frankly the counterintelligence evidence that went into that report.
It's pretty amazing to me that you've got the attorney general, who I thought, even though I voted against him, had a legitimate legal record. But he’s being nothing more than being a paid hack for the president — basically one step away from Rudy Giuliani. The fact that the attorney general makes all these conclusions, draws all this kind of protective cover for Trump and he didn't even look at any of the underlying evidence. I mean that is both sloppy lawyering and I think inappropriate actions for a real independent attorney general.
Laslo: What did you think of Barr yesterday defending Trump and his interactions with White House Counsel Don McGahn, obviously trying to get him to fire Mueller?
Warner: Barr may have tried to parse his words carefully, but this guy is simply a defender of Donald Trump. He is not taking his responsibility as an independent attorney general, I think, in a serious way. We saw him yesterday I think potentially out-and-out lie to Congress. We saw him a few weeks back testify before one of my colleagues, Chris Van Hollen, that he had no idea what Mueller or his team felt about his conclusions, which basically tried to paper over what Trump had done. But we now know that Mueller was literally quite upset [and] wrote not one but two letters to Barr, and if the facts prove out that he lied to Congress, he should resign.
Laslo: What do you think of him boycotting the House hearing scheduled for today?
Warner: There is this pattern that we have seen that started with Donald Trump where there is virtually no respect for the rule of law. Candidly, of all the things that Trump has done, the disrespect for the rule of law, for our institutions, for our processes and procedures, may be some of the most long-term damage that this president has done to our country.
Obviously I think the House will probably take legal action, but it just it bothers me that you've had a White House that's constantly undermined the intelligence community — the FBI, the Justice Department — and now you have an attorney general who is doing the same. And in many ways — I never thought I'd say this — Jeff Sessions at least in terms of his respect for the rule of law looks a heck of a lot better than Bill Barr.
Laslo: Do you think Barr should be held in contempt if he doesn't come and testify?
Warner: If Barr does not respond to a legitimate request of the House Judiciary Committee, I think it would be very appropriate for the House to hold him in contempt. If you allow this to become the new normal, if this president’s precedent is allowed to stand, we are in really uncharted water.
Laslo: Do you think President Trump obstructed justice?
Warner: On the obstruction of justice issues, that was not something that our committee spent a lot of time on. I'll leave that to the lawyers to make that decision, but the notion that Muller noted I think 10 specific instances where Muller at least raised that issue is pretty darn serious.
Laslo: Collusion isn't really a technical term, though it’s now in the lexicon.
Warner: If we could have the record back, I wish we would have not used the term collusion, which is not even a legal term. The question was, was there a conspiracy created? Mueller reached the standard that there was not that conspiracy, but I’ve got to tell you, just as an American, if a political campaign is receiving assistance from a foreign power, particularly a foreign power that is viewed as an adversary, if that's not illegal, well it should be on a going-forward basis.
We’ve seen evidence that the political campaign and the president's family — his kid Donald Trump Jr. welcomed the dirt that would come from the Russians, and you had the president's campaign manager sharing polling data with a known Russian operative.
The Russians aren't in favor of one party or the other. They want to disrupt our country. They want to bring chaos. They've done a pretty good job on that, in terms of the guy they backed to be the president in Donald Trump. I think on a going-forward basis, this is where I want to make sure I spend my time: How do we make sure they don't do it again in 2020. If you're contacted by foreign agents during a political campaign and they're offering you dirt on the opposition, there ought to be an affirmative obligation to turn that over to law enforcement.
Laslo: Now we're seeing more of your Democratic colleagues calling for impeachment proceedings. Do you think that talk is premature?
Warner: That would be an action of the House. I actually think that Speaker Pelosi has managed this pretty darn well in terms of saying that's not where she thinks the House ought to go at this point. We ought to continue to try to get all the facts out, and ultimately, who knows what other facts may come out. But in terms of where this heads, we’ll have a chance and the American people have a chance in less than two years to try to render a verdict on whether what Donald Trump did was appropriate.
Laslo: Does the report make you want to bring back any witnesses you’ve already interviewed, or bring in any new ones?
Warner: We are going through, and I believe there will be cases where people who came to us frankly lied to us. That's breaking the law. And we're going through all the places where the Mueller report contradicts testimony of sworn witnesses. And we may have, and I imagine we will have, referrals to the FBI and the Justice Department on those actions.
Laslo: WikiLeaks is pretty big player in all this. What do you think about the administration trying to go after Julian Assange now?
Warner: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have been acting on behalf of the Russians for years. The intelligence community knows that. It would be even more outrageous if somehow the president, then-candidate Donald Trump — who I think was on tape dozens of times saying how much he loved WikiLeaks because it was doing his dirty work — if they had not been willing to go after Assange, who I think has violated not only British law and Swedish law, but we have serious questions in terms of his role in counterintelligence.
But one of the things that is remarkable to me and one of things I'd like to ask Bob Mueller is how Roger Stone, one of the president's confidants, who was in regular communication with Trump as a candidate, used as a conduit of information. How was Mueller able to finish his investigation without the full prosecution of Roger Stone, which is going to come later this year? That's one of the questions I would like to ask Mueller.
Cover image: Sen. Mark Warner interviewed in his Senate office on May 2, 2019. (Photo: VICENews/HBO)