At a seafood restaurant in historic Yorktown, Virginia, this week, constituents peppered Sen. Mark Warner with questions about bread-and-butter issues like health care and taxes. But Warner also made sure to warn them at length about the perils of bots, trolls and fake news.
His preoccupation is understandable given Warner’s high-profile perch these days as the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, investigating Russian meddling in the election.
To give credence to the Russia investigation, Warner is presenting himself as a force for fairness and bipartisanship: At one point he half-jokingly advised a state Democratic Party official in the room to “maybe occasionally vote Republican.” But the Senate probe, of course, could have huge partisan implications if it uncovers evidence of coordination between Moscow and President Donald Trump’s campaign.
It’s a delicate balance for the two-term, 62-year-old Warner, who a decade ago was seen as potential White House material and perhaps, depending on how his current project goes, might be viewed that way again.
“This goes to the heart of our democracy,” Warner said. “There was nothing about Vladimir Putin that was pro-Republican. Vladimir Putin wants a weaker America — economically, socially. And this is not just happening in the United States.”
Warner, who made a fortune in the 1980s and ’90s investing in cell phone and other technology companies, is grappling with the conundrum of how to get voters who live outside politics-obsessed Northern Virginia to care about an abstract issue that has no direct impact on their wallets.
In a banquet room at the restaurant on Monday with a view of the York River as it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, Warner did not get a single question from the audience about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation. Instead, attendees at the Yorktown event asked Warner about Medicaid expansion, immigration, proposed federal budget cuts and water issues.
This didn’t stop the senator from talking at length about what he calls “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
“I’m not here to try to relitigate the election,” said Warner, noting that his Russia probe is one of the top three issues cited by constituents when they contact his office. “This is about how misinformation and actually fake news influence enormous amounts of things, and we have to be careful going forward.”
With Congress on a two-week recess, Warner is spending this week holding events with voters across the state and delivering stark warnings about Russia’s ability to exploit social media to spread its propaganda. It’s a message he says is all the more urgent because Russia is still trying to undermine democratic elections in Europe, and could continue trying to hack future U.S. elections.
He’s urging his constituents to practice better “cyber hygiene,” as he calls it — to change their passwords frequently, to be aware that Russian-paid online trolls can impact what shows up in their Facebook feeds and to not “believe everything you read on the internet.”
And while Warner insists he has not yet drawn any conclusions from the Intelligence Committee investigation, he isn’t shy about pointing out the web of connections between Trump aides and Russia.
At a talk with students from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Warner said it was “a little strange” that in the first 45 days of Trump’s administration, national security adviser Michael Flynn was ousted and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from investigations into Russia’s election meddling. Both departures came after it became clear they hadn’t been completely forthright about their conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
Warner also slammed House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes for the actions that led to the California Republican’s decision last week to temporarily step aside from the House investigation into Russia’s election meddling.
“This is like out of a bad spy movie,” Warner told the college students. “He was driving around one night with his chief of staff, he got a call, he got out of the car, jumped in an Uber, went to the White House, looked at secret information, went back to Congress and the next day says, ‘Oh I’ve got to go brief the president of the United States,’ before he shared that information with anybody else on the committee.
“That’s kind of not the way you do it,” Warner added.
The fledgling House investigation led until last week by Nunes offers a stark contrast to the one being run by Warner and his Republican counterpart, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Warner and Burr are seeking to portray themselves as a bipartisan duo determined to get to the bottom of Russia’s activities no matter the political consequences. The pair gave a joint press conference late last month in which Warner praised Burr and Burr pledged that while he supported Trump during the campaign, he would put aside “any personal beliefs that I have or loyalties that I might have.”
“My colleague in this, Sen. Richard Burr, senator from North Carolina, good guy, he is my partner, we are committed to absolutely following the intel wherever it leads,” Warner said at William & Mary, adding words of praise for the other Republican members of his panel.
The Senate investigation is currently conducting witness interviews with U.S. intelligence analysts who were involved in producing the January report concluding that Russia sought to sway the presidential election toward Trump.
In an interview, Warner said he was hoping the panel would wrap up most the analyst interviews in the next two weeks and then “kind of sit and start thinking through the more prominent witnesses.” These include Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, who is expected to be questioned by the panel about meetings he arranged with Russia’s ambassador and a Russian businessman.
The goal of the investigation is to produce a bipartisan report explaining what happened in the 2016 election and how to prevent such foreign meddling in the future. The FBI is also conducting a counterintelligence investigation into the issue, including possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
“There are weeks when it feels like at the end of the week … there are more potential stories than there were at the beginning of the week just because of the way some of this drip, drip, drip keeps coming,” Warner told POLITICO.
The big question is whether Warner and Burr will be able to maintain the bipartisan spirit of their investigation if and when the probe begins uncovering information that could be damaging to Trump.
And, for Warner, there’s the question of whether the national attention he’s receiving because of the probe could put him back in contention for the White House in 2020. Asked by a William & Mary student about a presidential run, the unabashedly moderate senator did not rule out the possibility.
“I’m going to try to do my job,” Warner said. “The problem with too many people in politics is they always try to plan what’s next. Do your job, and who knows what happens.”