CAPITOL HILL - The U.S. Senate's top Democrat said Thursday that Congress and the Justice Department must conduct meticulous, thorough investigations of any links between Russia and President Donald Trump's inner circle stretching from last year's campaign to the present.
"This is not a drill," said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. "All of us can agree that what is required are the facts. We have to evaluate the scope of Russia's interference in our election and assess if agents of their government have penetrated to the highest levels of our government."
Republicans concurred on the goal, if not the specifics, of Schumer's call for action, which came days after the resignation of the president's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who reportedly discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia's ambassador to the United States in the waning days of the Obama administration.
"Russia is an ongoing, persistent counterintelligence issue for the United States," said Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. "I don't view this as a partisan issue. We're going to do our job."
Schumer endorsed an ongoing probe by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian espionage and meddling in American domestic affairs, but added that other panels, like the Judiciary Committee, have a role to play as well.
He also demanded measures to protect the Department of Justice from any obstruction by the White House, saying that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a close ally and confidant of the president, must recuse himself from the department's probes.
"[Federal] prosecutors should not be reporting to the first senator who endorsed Donald Trump's campaign, who served on the same campaign committee as General Flynn, and who nominated Donald Trump at the Republican [National] Convention," Schumer said.
In addition, the minority leader said, steps must be taken to preserve emails, data and records pertaining to the investigations, and that White House officials as well as former Trump campaign staffers "must be made available to testify in public, under oath."
First things first
Republicans did not rule out Schumer's demands, but suggested some were premature.
"All of this has to be cleared up," said Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, adding that the Senate Intelligence Committee should be allowed to do its work before further steps are taken.
"Ask fundamental questions [in committee], have the White House give the answers and then decide where to go from there," he said.
Republican Ron Johnson concurred.
"The best place to hold that [investigation] is in the Intelligence Committee," the Wisconsin senator said. "I know, on a bipartisan basis, they are taking this charge up. They are going to do it very seriously. They are going to do it very comprehensively."
Johnson echoed Republicans in the House of Representatives who insist that any probe delve into intelligence and Justice Department leaks to the news media about information uncovered so far.
"I'm concerned about the intelligence leaks," he said. "Some of this is classified material that we shouldn't be talking about in the public domain."
Ready to act
Schumer said he believed that Republican-led congressional committees would set party interests aside in probing the Trump White House, but that Democrats were prepared to take steps if Republicans did not.
"We will be watching very carefully," Schumer said. "If the Intelligence Committee investigation is not proceeding to unearth the entire truth, we will seek alternative tools and structures to get to the truth, because get to the truth we must."
Another Democrat, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said he had "a minimum amount of confidence" that Republican lawmakers were up to the task.
"I think we need an independent commission, just as we did with Watergate," Leahy said, referring to the high-profile probe of a cover-up of illegal activities that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.