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Friday, March 31, 2017

House Russia Probe Implodes

House Intelligence Committee Republican Chairman Devin Nunes. (photo: Kelly Camino/The Daily Beast)
House Intelligence Committee Republican Chairman Devin Nunes. (photo: Kelly Camino/The Daily Beast)
By Tim Mak and Kelly Weill, The Daily Beast
 
The House investigation has imploded under the huge pressure on Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. Ranking Democrats now say he must sit-out the Russia probe.

he House Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into Russia’s influence on America’s politics imploded Monday evening.

The probe simply could not withstand the pressure put on it following Republican chairman Devin Nunes’s strange behavior over the past week—including briefing the president before his own committee, and a nighttime dash to the White House grounds to review secret documents.

The committee’s scheduled meetings for the week have been reportedly canceled. 

Given Nunes’s close ties to the Trump team, and his decision to brief the president on his investigation into the surveillance matter before even informing his own committee, Democrats—and a handful of leading Republicans—are publicly doubting his ability to oversee the probe.

"I think you put his objectivity in question at the very least," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told the Today Show Tuesday. “He’s gone off on… a sort of Inspector Clouseau investigation by himself.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement Monday: “After much consideration, and in light of the Chairman’s admission that he met with his source of information at the White House, I believe that the Chairman should recuse himself from any further involvement in the Russia investigation, as well as any involvement in oversight of matters pertaining to any incidental collection of the Trump transition, as he was also a key member of the transition team.”

Two of Schiff’s fellow Democrats on the committee, Reps. Jackie Speier and Eric Swalwell, have also called for Nunes’s recusal. And as the Senate resumed its business Monday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer went even further, calling for Nunes to be replaced as the committee’s chairman.

Schiff was more of a hold-out though, saying he hoped Nunes could regain the trust necessary for an independent committee. As recently as Sunday, he was dedicated to keeping the investigation alive. The intelligence committees in Congress have a decades-long tradition of bipartisanship and quiet cooperation. And Schiff has a reputation of being anything but a partisan bomb-thrower.

“I am going to do everything I can to get this back on track. And I implore our chairman and the speaker to rededicate themselves to a serious and bipartisan investigation,” Schiff said Sunday morning on CBS’ Face the Nation.

Just one day later, Schiff lost faith in Nunes.

“In the interests of a fair and impartial investigation whose results will be respected by the public, the Chairman’s recusal is more than warranted,” Schiff said Monday.

“This is not a recommendation I make lightly, as the Chairman and I have worked together well for several years; and I take this step with the knowledge of the solemn responsibility we have on the Intelligence Committee to provide oversight on all intelligence matters, not just to conduct the investigation.”

The collapse of the House Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan probe shifts the spotlight to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has continued to hold the faith of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The Senate panel will hold its first open hearings later this week.

Nunes drew scrutiny last week for an unexpected bombshell: He held a sudden press conference to allege some members of the Trump transition team might have been picked up through “incidental collection” during the surveillance of foreign intelligence targets. He then, in a breach of congressional protocol, rushed to the White House to brief the president, even before briefing the committee whose investigation he was leading. He pledged to share that information with his fellow committee members, but as of Monday that still has not occurred.

Odd circumstances began to emerge about what happened the evening before Nunes’s impromptu press conference. Committee sources told The Daily Beast that Nunes was riding in an Uber with a senior committee staff member Tuesday evening when he received a phone message and abruptly left. Even his senior aides were left in the dark about what Nunes was doing and where he was going.

CNN then later reported that Nunes had visited the White House grounds that night, before his press conference. In an interview Monday evening, Nunes told the network he was on White House grounds because he needed a secure room to view the documents, and Congress did not have access to those files.

“I had been working this for a long time with many different sources and needed a place that I could actually finally go, because I knew what I was looking for and I could actually get access to what I needed to see,” Nunes said.

After promising not to reveal who gave him this information, Nunes later said it was an “intelligence source.” He also insisted nothing strange had occurred, and that there was nothing mysterious about his visit to the White House.

“If I really wanted to, I could have snuck onto the grounds late at night and probably nobody would have seen me. But I wasn’t trying to hide,” Nunes told CNN. “In fact, I stopped to talk to several people there, just along the way, including, like I said, many foreigners.”

Nunes' story has shifted: he said the president's communications were incidentally collected, then later walked it back to say it was merely possible; then later Nunes said he didn't know if the Trump transition team was surveilled or merely mentioned in intelligence reports. Nunes has denied that his actions were orchestrated by the White House, but then admitted Monday that he had visited the White House grounds, which if not sinister at least gave the appearance of impropriety. The changing story lines add a cloud over Nunes' investigation.

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