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Rubio balances Senate Intelligence leadership with defense of Trump in Mar-a-Lago case

McClatchy Washington Bureau 9/14/2022 Michael Wilner, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Marco Rubio walks to the Senate Republican Luncheon in the U.S. Capitol Building on Aug. 2, 2022, in Washington, D.C.. © Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images North America/TNS Marco Rubio walks to the Senate Republican Luncheon in the U.S. Capitol Building on Aug. 2, 2022, in Washington, D.C..

After the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home last month for classified material, Democrats and Republicans on the historically bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee responded with one voice.

In a letter to the attorney general and director of national intelligence, they demanded an explanation of the search, as well as access to the intelligence documents that were seized and an assessment of the damage caused by their storage at the former president’s Florida estate.

But their unity ended there. The committee’s Democratic chairman, Mark Warner of Virginia, and its Republican ranking member, Marco Rubio of Florida, provided different perspectives in public on what oversight should look like. Warner and his staff said the committee’s job was to provide accountability on “intelligence matters,” including the mishandling of classified information. Rubio characterized the committee’s role as limited to providing oversight of intelligence agencies, and described the search as a political operation over a storage dispute.

“This is really, at its core, a storage argument that they’re making,” Rubio said last week of the Justice Department probe and FBI search. “They’re arguing there are documents there. They don’t deny that he should have access to those documents.”

“I don’t think a fight over storage of documents is worthy of what they’ve done,” he added.

Rubio’s ardent defense of the former president since the Aug. 8 search has raised questions over the consequences his reelection might have for the work of the committee. The Florida senator has appeared so frequently on conservative television to defend Trump and dismiss the federal probe that the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has referred reporters to him for the GOP response.

Rubio would become chairman of the intelligence panel if he defeats his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, in November, and if Republicans retake the Senate majority. The Senate is currently split 50-50 between the two parties.

So far, Warner has defended his Republican counterpart, calling their congressional panel “the last functioning bipartisan committee” and noting their call for a damage assessment was bipartisan.

“The lesson you learn in the intelligence committee is you’ve got to keep this information secret,” Warner told CNN on Sunday. “Everyone on the intelligence committee realizes the importance of top secret documents.”

“Let’s see how bad the damage could be if they have been inappropriately handled,” Warner added, asked to respond to Rubio’s remarks. “I think this is an extraordinarily serious matter.”

Panel awaits briefing

Former intelligence committee staff who worked with Rubio suspect his public posture on the Mar-a-Lago search has more to do with his reelection campaign than his committee priorities.

“I would separate out what Rubio is doing as a candidate for Senate, running for reelection, from what he’s going to do on the committee,” said Todd Rosenblum, a former professional staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee now with the Atlantic Council.

“From what I understand to be the dynamics behind the scenes, that’s exactly the case,” Rosenblum said, “that it will be separate, and that Rubio’s staff will want to know what was in this information and the assessed damage associated with it.”

The Justice Department is investigating whether Trump broke several federal criminal laws by knowingly possessing government records at Mar-a-Lago after leaving office, and by possibly destroying and concealing some of those records from law enforcement after being asked to return them.

U.S. officials from the National Archives and Justice Department asked Trump and his team to return all government documents over the course of a year. But Justice Department leadership ordered a search of his home on Aug. 8 after learning that highly sensitive national security material remained on the property, and concluding that the former president couldn’t be trusted to turn them over willfully.

In court documents filed by the Justice Department since the search took place, government officials have revealed that 33 boxes were seized from the former president’s home, including over 100 documents marked as classified. Some of those documents were marked with the most sensitive classification markings in the U.S. government.

While the Senate Judiciary Committee will have jurisdiction over the work of the Justice Department — including oversight of the department’s investigation of Trump — it is the purview of the intelligence committee to oversee any mishandling of intelligence.

The director of national intelligence initiated a review of the documents to assess the potential national security damage of such sensitive documents being stored at Mar-a-Lago for over a year. But a decision by a federal judge in Florida to appoint a special master in the case to review the seized material has put that intelligence review on hold.

Warner said his committee has not yet been briefed by the intelligence community because it is waiting for the Florida judge to flesh out details of the special master appointment.

In a statement to McClatchy, Rubio said that the committee “plays a critical role in overseeing our nation’s intelligence agencies.”

“Our nation’s safety and security depends on the success of these agencies, but Americans rightly demand oversight and accountability,” Rubio said. “That has traditionally been a bipartisan effort in the Senate, even on the most politicized of issues. You can even see it now with the bipartisan frustration over the lack of transparency regarding Mar-a-Lago.”

If reelected, and named chair of the committee in a Republican-held Senate, Rubio said he would ensure that the intelligence community remains focused “on the major threat facing our nation: Communist China.”

“There is a tendency to marginalize or dismiss this threat, especially without strong leadership in the White House. That cannot be allowed to happen,” he said. “Thankfully the committee has done incredible bipartisan work in the past to raise awareness of the threat, and I am confident those efforts will continue.”

He also said the committee would “need to make sure the intelligence community does not fall victim to the woke priorities of the radical left.” An aide to Rubio said that one example of a “woke priority” was the CIA’s consideration of joining TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media app.

“There are real issues facing our nation, and we need a laser-like focus on them,” Rubio said. “We cannot risk distractions.”

Past Trump probe

This is not the first time Rubio finds himself in a position of leadership on the committee during an investigation of Trump.

When Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina was forced to step down in 2020 over an investigation into his stock sales during the coronavirus pandemic, it was left to Rubio, as acting chairman, to finalize the committee’s reports on ties between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government.

The bipartisan report found that multiple contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow posed a “grave” counterintelligence threat – and that questions over the involvement of Trump aides in Russia’s hack-and-leak operation targeting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign remained largely unanswered.

Rubio did not alter the findings of the bipartisan report in Trump’s favor.

“That time period gives you a really good insight into how the committee would operate with him as chairman,” said Nick Iacovella, a senior vice president at the Coalition for a Prosperous America and a former staffer for Rubio. “The Senate Intelligence Committee reports were bipartisan. Even something as partisan as an investigation into former President Trump was conducted in a bipartisan fashion, and the quality of the work speaks for itself.”

But Rubio’s public remarks at the time glossed over many of the open questions raised by the report, including whether Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was personally involved in the GRU’s hacking and influence operations.

“Without any hesitation,” Rubio concluded, “we found absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia to meddle in our elections.”

Speaking to CBS on Sunday, Warner said that the committee’s work on the Russia investigation was proof that it could continue to work on a bipartisan basis.

“The record of our intelligence committee of keeping secrets secret – that’s why the intelligence community shares information with us. Remember this was the committee, bipartisan, that did the Russia investigation,” Warner said.

“Our responsibility,” he added, “is to assess whether there has been damage done to our intelligence collection, and maintenance of secrets.”

©2022 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Visit at mcclatchydc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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