Deflect and distract: Trying to slow the Russia investigation

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. AP

First there was the president’s claim that his predecessor had wiretapped Trump Tower.

Then there were accusations that a top aide to former President Barack Obama had politicized intelligence about Donald Trump and others.

Now comes another in a series of rear guard actions by Republicans that critics say are designed to deflect and distract from the ongoing investigations into Russia’s meddling — possibly in coordination with the Trump campaign — in the 2016 presidential election, even as evidence mounts.

Several lawmakers involved in the investigations, former intelligence officers and ex-prosecutors all said that recent subpoenas to the FBI and Department of Justice issued by Rep. Devin Nunes were designed to cloud the facts and shift the direction of the inquiry.

“A charade,” said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is examining Russia’s role in the election.

“A political narrative at work rather than a serious congressional investigative effort,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, part of a Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry into whether Trump and others tried to block the investigations and obstruct justice.

Nunes, a Republican from California who served on Trump’s presidential transition team, is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. But he stepped aside from the panel’s Russia-Trump investigation earlier this year over allegations that he disclosed classified information related to the probe.

Nevertheless, Nunes subpoenaed Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray last month seeking documents related to the so-called Trump “dossier” prepared during the campaign by an ex-British spy on behalf of Trump’s political opponents. Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said the chairman has the sole authority to issue subpoenas.

“Learning the extent to which intelligence community agencies relied upon and verified information from the Steele dossier is a vital task for the Intelligence Committee’s oversight responsibilities, and it’s hard to see why anyone would oppose the Committee taking action to find out the truth of the matter,” Langer said.

The explosive report contains information alleging Trump’s involvement with Russia, which, if accurate, would appear to make him vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Nunes wants to know how the dossier and the relationship of the author, former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, to the FBI, has influenced that agency’s own investigation, which is led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

“I cannot fathom any practical reason why congressional investigators need that information,” said John Sipher, who spent three decades in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. “They know that the FBI will not want to share it. They also should know and trust that the FBI is doing serious and professional work, and don’t need to be second-guessed without reason. This appears to me to be a political tactic rather than a serious effort to learn the facts.”

Nunes’ move became public with a Sept. 1 letter he fired off threatening to hold Sessions and Wray in contempt and haul them before Congress because neither has so far responded to his demand for documents.

Although Langer said Nunes did not seek any other signatories, Rep. Michael Conaway, a Republican from Texas, who assumed the mantle of the investigation after Nunes ostensibly stepped away, said he supported them.

The subpoenas were a departure from form that committee Democrats say needlessly creates tension with the Justice Department. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat, has said that normally the committee doesn’t issue subpoenas until a party refuses to comply voluntarily.

The investigation into how Russia meddled in the election and whether it colluded with the Trump campaign has gained increasing momentum.

Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, spent several hours behind closed doors Thursday with Senate investigators to discuss a meeting he held in June 2016. It was arranged by an acquaintance who said the Russian government supported Trump and could provide damaging information about his rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Other attendees included the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; and several Russians, including an attorney and a lobbyist who had been a Soviet intelligence officer.

Trump has has been both dismissive and enraged by the ongoing investigations, calling them “fake news,” among other epithets. Yet he’s trafficked in the very thing for which he regularly berates the media.

In March, Trump accused Obama in a tweet of having Trump Tower wiretapped during the campaign: "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" His claim came on the heels of stories that didn’t help the president: the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, over possibly illegal contacts with Russians; and Session’s decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation because of his own contacts with Russians while he was a Trump adviser during the campaign.

Trump’s charge was debunked just last week by the Justice Department.

Also last spring, the president seized on Republican allegations that Susan Rice, Obama national security adviser, had wrongly “unmasked” during the presidential transition period the names of people around Trump who became ensnared in government eavesdropping of foreign officials. Since the Trump associates were not the targets, their names were excised from the intelligence reports, but top officials can ask that the names be “unmasked.”

Trump said, without offering any proof, that Rice may have committed a crime.

With concerns raised at the time about the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, Rice defenders said the Obama administration acted properly. She denied that she used the information for political purposes.

In July, after the Senate Intelligence panel met privately with Rice, the chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, said that Nunes was behind “the unmasking thing. Rice met in a closed session this past week with the House Intelligence Committee.

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times in June, Nunes explained his continuing involvement this way: “Simply put, I’m still the chairman of the committee. The way to look into this is that I’m still read into everything, but ... I was going to set at least the Russia side of the investigation aside because I didn't want to be the face of this investigation. But everything else, I’m still in charge of. … Especially the unmasking.”

Following the wiretapping and unmasking claims, former CIA Moscow station chief Steve Hall said of the subpoenas, “It does seem to me there is a modus operandi among those who prefer see this investigation either not go forward or end more quickly.”

Still, the probes seem to be progressing. Facebook’s disclosure to congressional investigators this week that it sold $150,000 in ads, some of them pro-Trump or anti-Clinton, during the campaign to a Russian company tied to a “troll farm” — operatives who create social media accounts to distribute false and provocative information — added yet another piece to the head-scratching puzzle over Russia, Trump and the election.

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ