‘Off the rails’: House Russia probe hits new low – POLITICO

‘Off the rails’: House Russia probe hits new low – POLITICO

Devin Nunes is pictured. | Getty Photo

The intelligence committee was thrown into turmoil last month after Nunes orchestrated the public release — with Trump’s approval — of a classified memo alleging anti-Trump bias on the part of FBI and Justice Department officials. Democrats called it a cynical and misleading attempt to protect Trump and issued a strong rebuttal. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Mistrust, anger and charges of skullduggery between Democrats and Republicans have hobbled the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation for months.

Hope Hicks and a pair of frustrated senators may have finally broken it.

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There are new signs that Republicans may soon conclude a probe that Democrats call far from complete following Wednesday’s testimony by Trump’s confidante, Hicks. Leaks revealed that Hicks had admitted to sometimes telling white lies on Trump’s behalf — a fact that Republicans called an unfair distortion of the departing White House communications director’s testimony.

The next day, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office confirmed that the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee paid an extraordinary visit to Ryan to express their “concerns” about how the House panel is operating — and, according to one report, to accuse Republicans of their own dishonest leaking.

“I want [the House investigation] to end because we have gone off the rails of being able to objectively do our job,” Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said Friday. Rooney said that other GOP committee members agree with him, though he did not name them.

The partial leak of Hicks’ testimony “was the tipping point for me,” Rooney said, adding he had “finally come to the realization that we are not going to put together any kind of a bipartisan product that’s going to help the national security apparatus we oversee or to find out objectively what happened in the last election.”

Rooney has urged the panel’s lead investigator, Mike Conaway (R-Texas), to shut down the probe, which another GOP committee member describes as “nearly” complete. But Democrats insist that dozens more witnesses must testify, including several top Trump associates such as the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

The bitter mood will likely weaken the committee’s final report, which looks increasingly certain to reflect the panel’s partisan fissures. It also escalates pressure on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has largely operated free of political drama, to serve as Congress’ definitive assessment of the Russian plot.

At the same time, it underscores the fact that Capitol Hill is largely relying on special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation to produce the most meaningful account of Russian interference — and whether any Trump associates or other Americans conspired to assist the Kremlin.

The committee itself is facing an existential crisis of sorts. Members of both parties worry that the acrimony and charges of leaks will deter witnesses from cooperating — and could even scare U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies from sharing information.

Speaker Paul Ryan has largely taken a hands-off approach, meanwhile, deferring to committee leaders to resolve confrontations with the FBI and, more recently, with the Senate.

The day after Hicks testified, Ryan’s office revealed that the top Senate Intelligence Committee members, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), had met with him to discuss unspecified “concerns” about the House panel’s handling of the investigation.

The discussion, first revealed by The New York Times, came soon after a set of Warner’s text messages that had recently been supplied to the panel were leaked to Fox News, which cited a “Republican source” for providing the messages. Ryan, according to a spokeswoman, told the two of them to work it out with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

For now, Conaway says he has no imminent plans to end the investigation until all leads have been explored. But he’s expressed hope that the end is near, despite Democrats’ protestations.

Other GOP members of the panel increasingly say they’re satisfied with the probe’s thoroughness and expect it to wrap up soon. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has said he hoped the Hicks interview, following closely on a limited interview of former Trump aide Steve Bannon, might be the panel’s last.

“The Intelligence Committee should continue our investigation until we have completed our work, which we nearly have,” added Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah).

After the leaks about Hick’s testimony, even the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, chided colleagues for the disclosures amid a creeping realization that the GOP appears to be preparing to pull the plug: “I think it was unfair to Hope Hicks that conversations, as part of her testimony were leaked out of the committee,” Schiff said on CNN Thursday.

Amid the anticipation of a GOP push to wind down the probe, Schiff also released a list of Democrats’ outstanding requests for subpoenas that Republicans have failed to grant. He accused GOP members of constructing the façade of a thorough probe but allowing recalcitrant witnesses to avoid answering central questions and refusing to deploy the committee’s vast subpoena power to compel crucial information.

Schiff said the committee failed to exercise this power despite unanswered questions from figures like Hicks, Donald Trump Jr. and Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen. He noted that Republicans never even attempted to broach potential financial ties between Trump associate and Russian interests.

Even a rare moment of bipartisan agreement has yielded nothing: After former Trump aide Steve Bannon refused in two recent interviews to answer questions about his post-campaign work for Trump on the grounds that it was covered by executive privilege, the committee voted to subpoena him.

But Bannon has held his ground — and so far, committee Republicans have not followed through on threats to hold him in contempt of Congress.

Conaway said Thursday the matter is still under review and he expects to discuss it with Speaker Paul Ryan.

Sidelining the committee further has been the increasingly aggressive parallel probe driven by the committee’s chairman, Nunes, into what he alleges are a series of abuses by Obama administration appointees in the Justice and State Departments aimed at the Trump campaign in 2016.

Nunes removed himself from the committee’s Russia probe nearly a year ago, after a controversial late-night visit to the White House to examine classified documents, about which he later briefed Trump. Since December, he has aggressively sought to change the narrative of the Russia investigation by spotlighting alleged wrongdoing on the part of senior Justice Department and FBI officials.

The committee was thrown into turmoil last month after Nunes orchestrated the public release — with Trump’s approval — of a classified memo alleging anti-Trump bias on the part of FBI and Justice Department officials. Democrats called it a cynical and misleading attempt to protect Trump and issued a strong rebuttal.

Rooney is one of four Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee who are quitting Congress at the end of the year. He told POLITICO that his departure isn’t related to his frustration with the panel — but that he isn’t sorry to be leaving it, either.

He noted that as many as 70 of his colleagues were on a waiting list to fill opening slots in the next Congress.

“I’m sure there’s some members that wish they were part of this,” he said. “Not me.

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