The competing views of California Reps. Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff were just the latest sign that pledges that Congress could undertake an independent investigation into Russian election meddling through its existing committees is in deep trouble.
WASHINGTON — A week that began with a public hearing by the House Intelligence Committee that confirmed the FBI is conducting a counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s election campaign and Russia ended Friday with “deeply disturbing signs” that a House probe into the same topic is breaking apart.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the intelligence committee, said Friday that he had postponed what was to have been another public hearing Tuesday, a decision that was denounced moments later by Rep. Adam Schiff, the Californian who is the highest ranking Democrat on the committee. Schiff called the postponement a cancellation.
Nunes had said the committee needed more time so its members could hear in closed session more testimony from FBI Director James Comey and his National Security Agency counterpart, Adm. Mike Rogers. The two had said Monday that they could not answer some questions in public, and Nunes said the committee needs those answers “before we can move forward.”
But Schiff accused Nunes of canceling the hearing, which was also to have heard from Obama administration officials, to “choke off public information” and avoid any more embarrassment to the White House.
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“I don’t think that anyone should have any doubt about what is really going on here,” Schiff said. “The point was to cancel a public hearing.”
Their competing views were just the latest sign that pledges that Congress could undertake an independent investigation into Russian election meddling through its existing committees is in deep trouble.
That has been obvious since Wednesday, when Nunes said he had become privy to documents that showed Trump and his associates had been the subject of what is known in counterintelligence as “incidental collection,” a term employed to describe Americans whose names turn up in the communications of foreigners being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Nunes said the surveillance appeared to have been legal, authorized by the nation’s secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But in the context of the past month, when Trump accused President Barack Obama of having ordered that he be wiretapped, only to have that accusation rejected by congressional leaders and then, on Monday, Comey and Rogers, the revelation was explosive, if confusing.
“For the most part, the reports have value for intelligence,” Nunes said. “But there are some questions, some information in the documents that I don’t think belongs there.”
Lest anyone be confused about the nature of the reports, however, Schiff, who by Friday still had not seen the material, described the focus of those reports as intelligence on “foreign spies.” He characterized the way in which Nunes, and no one else on the committee, had gained access to the documents as a “dead of night” trip — he didn’t say to where — to view the documents.
Friday morning, Nunes said outside the committee’s “no visitors allowed” chambers that the cancellation of Tuesday’s hearing, which was to take testimony from three Obama administration officials, was a scheduling matter. But Schiff used the same location to say he believed Nunes was acting at the bidding of the White House.
Schiff pointed out that the three former officials scheduled to appear Tuesday — Obama-era Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates — had all agreed to testify in an open session. When they will now appear before the committee is not known, a committee spokesman said.
Nunes defended his move as necessary to let Comey and Rogers answer questions that they’d declined to respond to in public on Monday.
Between the two men, there were more than 50 questions they declined to answer during the nearly six-hour-long hearing. Among them, any details of investigations ordered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the names of anyone allegedly linked to the case, including former national-security adviser Michael Flynn, who served in the Trump administration for 24 days before he was fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador.
The two also declined to respond to questions about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was fired in August when it was learned he was under investigation for possibly accepting $12 million from a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine, and Roger Stone, a one-time Trump campaign adviser who has acknowledged contacts with WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 over pirated Democratic Party emails.
Nunes said Friday that Manafort had agreed to testify before the committee. “Manafort might be public, might be private,” Nunes said. “The details have yet to be worked out.”
Manafort also volunteered to be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation.
Manafort volunteered to be interviewed just days after a report revealed he worked with a Russian billionaire with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago.
In February, Manafort said he was never involved with “anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration.”
Schiff, meanwhile, suggested Nunes now had a choice to make — “to decide if he’s leading an investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both.”
Schiff repeated a call Democrats in the Senate and House — and some Republican senators — have been making for months.
“We really need an independent commission,” he said, to deal with the issue of Russian election meddling.