Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

House Russia Probe Hobbled by Sharp Divide on Intelligence Panel

  • Lawmakers can’t agree on mission or scope of investigation
  • Nunes stepped aside from probe but still signing subpoenas

The House Intelligence Committee is supposed to be investigating Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. But the panel is so riven by partisan mistrust that its members can’t agree on the probe’s mission, its scope or even when to interview key witnesses.

The House panel has yet to depose a single witness. Its Senate counterpart, by contrast, already has interviewed more than 30 people. 

Even the status of the House committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes of California, is a matter of contention. Nunes was forced to step aside from leading the inquiry amid blowback over his sharing of raw intelligence with President Donald Trump. 

Yet he still signs any subpoenas issued under the Russia probe -- an indication that he still remains involved in the details of the inquiry even though Democrats say he could delegate that function to Michael Conaway of Texas, the Republican now leading the investigation.

Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, called Nunes’s continued involvement in subpoenas "inappropriate."

"When you step aside, that means you fully step aside. Not half in, half out," he said. Swalwell said it won’t prevent committee Democrats from doing their work, but that it does add an "asterisk" to the committee’s work.

Third Hearing

On Wednesday, the House panel is set to hold just its third public hearing in a five-month-old investigation, and members are split over whether the witness, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, is even relevant to their investigation.

A fractured House probe risks undercutting congressional efforts to expose Russia’s role in the U.S. election, and also could make it more difficult for Republicans to move beyond Democratic demands for a more independent inquiry into the Trump campaign.

The panel’s turmoil stands in stark contrast to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is much further along with its own Russia probe. The Senate panel has already held blockbuster hearings with fired FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in addition to the many interviewed behind closed doors. The probe’s leaders have taken great pains to project a bipartisan image.

Not so with the House panel. Nunes, the chairman, told a California radio station on Monday that he never recused himself from the probe, even though he said in an April 6 statement that Conaway and others would "temporarily take charge" of the Russia investigation.

"This was essentially made up by the media," he said Monday on KMJ radio in Fresno. "What I said was, hey, I will temporarily step aside.”

More broadly, the committee is split along partisan lines over Democrats seeking a deeper probe of Trump’s decision to fire Comey. They’re also divided on the significance of reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether Trump has engaged in obstruction.

“Nah, I haven’t read the story,” Conaway said the day after the story broke, although he had just exited from a closed-door Intelligence Committee meeting where it was certainly discussed.

‘Get to the Bottom’

Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, emerged from the same meeting, saying potential obstruction of justice is relevant to the probe. 

"Congress certainly needs to get to the bottom of whether there was any effort to obstruct or impede the investigation," he said.

Schiff said he and Conaway expect to meet with Mueller in the coming days. They will go over how the separate House and special counsel investigations might share information and avoid tripping over each other. Mueller’s staff has already been talking to committee staff.

More immediately, the Intelligence Committee is gearing up for the hearing with Johnson, who is scheduled to discuss the government’s determination last fall that senior Russian officials had a hand in authorizing the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails.

Two Republicans on the committee, who asked not to be identified, dismissed the hearing as pushed by Schiff and Democrats and mostly for show. They say it is intended to display some activity after the panel was overshadowed by its Senate counterpart, which held widely covered hearings with Comey and Sessions. 

Democrats, meanwhile, defend it as more meaningful.

"One thing that we want to find out is, what was the response?" said Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, referring to what the Obama administration did after learning that senior Russian officials had played roles in authorizing the hacking.

In public, several Democrats defend the extent of the committee’s work. Himes said members have agreed on several dozen witnesses they want to question, mostly behind closed doors. They also continue to chase and obtain access to relevant documents, some of them classified, he said.

"The committee’s work has been slower than it could be, but Democrats are in the minority," said Democrat Mike Quigley of Illinois.

Witness List

Other lawmakers have said people on the agreed-upon witness list include: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law; Roger Stone, a Trump confidant; Michael Flynn, the fired national security adviser; Carter Page, an early Trump campaign adviser; and Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time personal lawyer.

In addition, the committee has written to the White House asking for any copies of tape-recordings or other records of conversations between the president and Comey.

The panel announced May 31 it has now issued subpoenas for two of the witnesses it agreed to call, Cohen, who has confirmed he’s been asked to respond by Sept. 5, and Flynn.

But several Republicans complain that, to date, there have been no actual depositions conducted and blame Democrats for stalling. They predict some targeted witnesses aren’t likely to cooperate.

Democrats say they need to wait for the witnesses to turn over all the requested documents and other background information.

‘Fly Blind’

“We’re not going to fly blind on this," said Swalwell.

Republicans also say the reported twists and turns of Mueller’s investigation shouldn’t be used to divert from the committee’s main oversight role of the intelligence community, or its inquiry into Russian election meddling. 

"It has never been within our jurisdiction to investigate criminality," said Representative Tom Rooney of Florida, saying the role of the committee isn’t to prosecute crimes. Rooney, along with Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, are the committee Republicans assigned to interview witnesses in the closed-door depositions. 

But Nunes complained on the radio show Monday that Democrats want to look now into accusations that Trump committed obstruction of justice because, he asserted, the probe so far has turned up "no evidence of collusion" between the president and the Russians.

"Republicans are getting tired of what appears to be investigations without a crime," Nunes said. "If someone doesn’t pull a Russian out of a hat soon," he said, people "have got to question what is going on."

‘Evidence of Obstruction’

Schiff said that he has seen some evidence of collusion, but didn’t provide details.

“I think there is evidence and I can’t go into the particulars of our closed investigation. But I also think there is evidence of obstruction," Schiff said Sunday in an appearance on ABC’s "This Week."

Rooney has said he and his colleagues will seek to issue a comprehensive bipartisan report at the end of the panel’s investigation. But any evidence of criminal wrongdoing would be sent to the Justice Department to pursue, said Rooney.

A panel feud also broke out after Nunes, despite stepping aside from leading the probe, issued several additional subpoenas to intelligence agencies.

‘Unmasking’ Subpoenas

The subpoenas asked the the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency to provide details of any requests by former Obama administration officials to “unmask” names of Trump campaign advisers inadvertently picked up in top-secret foreign communications intercepts, according to one official.

Democrats complained those subpoenas were issued by Nunes without getting their go-ahead, or even telling them. A Republican official said Democrats were informed and consulted.

Nunes has said that line of inquiry is separate from the investigation into the probe of Russia meddling, which he no longer leads, and that they were issued in his role as committee chairman.

The House Judiciary Committee, the other panel that could claim jurisdiction over the Russia matter, hasn’t begun a formal probe. Democrats on that committee complain that, under chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, that panel isn’t doing enough.

"We can no longer delay conducting oversight of the office of the attorney general," said top House Judiciary Committee Democrat John Conyers of Michigan, in a statement on May 24.

Goodlatte did request from the Trump administration a briefing on Comey’s removal, said a Republican committee aide. But now that Mueller is working as special counsel, the aide said, Goodlatte wants to let Mueller do his work and the committee will provide oversight.

— With assistance by Steven T. Dennis

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