POLITICS
03/24/2017 10:52 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2017

Dem Accuses GOP Chair Of 'Attempt To Choke Off Public Info' On Russia Probe

Rep. Devin Nunes' surveillance disclosures have delivered a huge blow to the House Intelligence Committee's fragile bipartisanship.

WASHINGTON ― The Republican leader of the House Intelligence Committee called off a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday on possible ties between President Donald Trump’s associates and the Russian government, saying the group will hold a closed-door meeting first.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, called the decision by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) “a dodge” and an “attempt to choke off public info.”

While Nunes characterized the change as a postponement, Schiff called it a cancellation.

‘We’re Not Going To Get Into A Neo-McCarthyism Era’

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan had agreed to testify in front of the committee on March 28. But Nunes said the public hearing was being postponed because the committee needed to first hear from FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers in a private setting.

Comey and Rogers testified in a public hearing before the panel on Monday, when the FBI director confirmed for the first time that the agency is investigating Trump associates’ ties to Moscow as a part of a broader probe into reports that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump win.

The House Intelligence Committee will also interview Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who volunteered to meet with the panel amid unsettling new reports about his ties to Russia, Nunes said. Manafort, who stepped down as Trump’s campaign chair in August, worked for a close Kremlin ally to help advance Russia’s interests in the U.S., according to The Associated Press.

Nunes did not say whether or not Manafort would testify publicly, but Schiff urged the former campaign manager to appear in both an open and closed setting.

Trump’s former foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, and longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone later said they would also meet with the committee.

Nunes welcomed other Trump associates to come forward but was evasive about whether he would use subpoenas to call in witnesses who did not volunteer ― an authority Schiff has said the chairman must be willing to exercise.

“We’re not going to get into a neo-McCarthyism era where we just start bringing in Americans because they were mentioned in a press story,” Nunes said Friday.

Nunes Goes To The White House

Nunes and Schiff spoke in separate back-to-back news conferences on Friday instead of appearing side by side to deliver updates about the committee’s work. The decision to speak separately underscored the strained relations between the two committee heads, who are tasked with overseeing the House’s probe into reported Russian meddling in the election (The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting its own separate investigation).

The public spat between Nunes and Schiff followed a bizarrely dramatic week for the committee, which usually operates in private.

On Wednesday, Nunes told reporters that an unnamed source provided him with dozens of reports showing that Trump associates ― and maybe even the president himself ― were subject to “incidental” intelligence collection in the final months of the Obama administration.

The surveillance apparently occurred legally, as part of a program that allows for spying on suspected agents of a foreign power, Nunes acknowledged. But he said he was concerned that some Trump associates were named in internal intelligence reports.

Though Nunes has repeatedly disavowed Trump’s claims of being wiretapped by former President Barack Obama, he appeared to be attempting to give credence to the idea that Trump and his team were the victims of a “deep state” loyal to the previous administration. Without notifying Schiff, Nunes briefed Trump on his revelations at the White House, where he gave a second news conference on Wednesday.  

Yet the chairman’s bombshell allegations fell apart over the following days. According to Schiff, Nunes later admitted that few Trump associates were actually mentioned by name in the reports he viewed ― but said he could still figure out the “probable identity of the parties.”

Schiff suggested on Friday that Nunes’ actions occurred in collaboration with the White House. “In an effort to justify the unjustifiable, [Trump] is now interfering in this investigation,” the California Democrat said, referring to Trump’s unproven wiretapping allegation.

Asked several times to state that the White House was not the source of his information, Nunes demurred. “You can ask me every single name that exists on the planet and I’m still not going to tell you who our sources are,” he said. 

The speaker has to decide ― just as well as our own chairman ― whether they want a credible investigation. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)

Nunes conceded on Friday that there are some legitimate reasons members of the Trump team could be caught up in surveillance that targets suspected foreign spies. (Americans who are not the targets of surveillance can still appear in reports if they are in communication with the targets or mentioned by the targets. Intelligence officials can “unmask” the names of Americans to provide context for intercepted communications.)

It is logical that Trump and his campaign team would have been mentioned by foreign officials who are under surveillance, Schiff said Friday. And if they were communicating with suspected foreign spies, Nunes’ decision to tip off the president to the findings of the intelligence community would be all the more questionable.

Still, Nunes maintained on Friday that parts of what he saw in the reports made him uncomfortable and that he felt obligated to brief Trump. He could not say with certainty whether the president and his team were spied upon or if they were simply mentioned in intercepted communications.

Nunes and Schiff asked the intelligence community last week for information about the “unmasking” of Americans swept up in surveillance. They expect to hear back early next week, Nunes said.  At that time, he continued, he will have a fuller understanding of the reports he received from his unnamed source. 

‘The Events Of This Week Are Not Encouraging’ 

The decision by Nunes to brief the president ― whose team is under investigation for possible collusion with the Russian government ― raised questions about his ability to impartially oversee the House committee’s probe on the same topic. Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, said he was not compromised because the foreign intelligence surveillance reports did not mention Russia. He declined to say which country was named. 

The Washington Post editorial board wrote on Friday that Nunes was unfit to lead the committee’s investigation and said he should be investigated for a possible leak of classified information. Asked if Nunes should be removed as head of the intelligence committee, Schiff punted the question to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) ― but made his opinion clear.

“The speaker has to decide ― just as well as our own chairman ― whether they want a credible investigation,” he told reporters on Friday. “The events of this week are not encouraging. I think anyone watching them has very legitimate and profound concerns about whether this Congress, indeed, can do a credible investigation.”

Schiff reiterated his call for the creation of an independent investigative commission modeled after the 9/11 Commission to investigate ties between the president and Moscow.  

This piece has been updated to include Schiff’s comments.

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