House Intelligence panel probe into Russian meddling in U.S. election appears frozen

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks with reporters about the committee's investigation into Russia's involvement in the recent U.S. presidential election, on Captiol Hill in Washington, March 7, 2017.
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks with reporters about the committee's investigation into Russia's involvement in the recent U.S. presidential election, on Captiol Hill in Washington, March 7, 2017. AP

The House of Representatives investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the campaign of President Donald Trump is stalled and may be doomed.

For a week now, Democrats on the House committee have insisted that Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has put the possibility of a bipartisan investigation at risk. But recent revelations might mean it is impossible for the committee to carry out a credible investigation, at least if Nunes remains as chairman.

Today’s hearing would have built upon that understanding, but it was unfortunately and abruptly canceled.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

It’s been a week since Nunes announced that he’d seen documents that showed that U.S. court-authorized monitoring of foreign spy targets had resulted in the “incidental collection” of information dealing with Trump and some members of his campaign team. Yet, to date, no one else involved in the investigation has seen the documents, setting the committee at partisan odds. Nunes’ admission this week that he had viewed the documents inside the White House compound also raised suspicions about their source.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that it appears “someone in the (Executive Office Building) or the White House gave him this information,” which she described as “very irregular.”

“I think he ought to recuse himself,” she said. “You don’t do this kind of thing.”

The committee is also feuding over Nunes’ cancellation last week of a public hearing that was to have taken place Tuesday to hear from former Obama administration officials with knowledge of contacts between Trump transition figures and Russian officials. A public session to hear from the officials – former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper – has yet to be scheduled.

House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Nunes (R-Calif.) blindsided ranking member Rep. Schiff (D-Calif.) with the announcement that he was canceling open hearings with FBI director James Comey over the inquiry into Russian involvement with the

Nor did Nunes set up a schedule for a private hearing with FBI director James Comey and his National Security Agency counterpart Adm. Mike Rogers. Nunes last week had said that their private session would take place Tuesday, instead of the public hearing. But a week later, Nunes still had not made the arrangements. “We’re continuing to try to schedule a time to bring them in for a closed session,” a committee statement said.

Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., on Tuesday accused Nunes of “employing stalling tactics” and could no longer run a credible investigation.

“Right now, our investigation is stalled,” Swalwel said.

Swalwell said Nunes’ rationale for canceling Tuesday’s public hearing had been suspicious from the beginning. The fact that it had yet to be reset or that the secret round of testimony from Comey and Rogers hadn’t been scheduled made Nunes’ leadership suspect.

“To say that we have to first hear again from Comey and Rogers is to assume there are only two hours in the day,” Swalwell said. “But we’ve done nothing as a committee to reschedule the open hearing. Sure, our investigation will continue. But as long as Nunes continues to lead it, we won’t have any credibility.”

Another member of the committee, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said the sequence of events appears to be “an orchestrated attempt by the White House to make the committee irrelevant.”

“If Nunes does not resign, the damage done here could not only impact the Russia investigation, but the committee’s ability to function as an oversight body” of the country’s intelligence agencies, she said.

A third committee member, Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said it’s not just the Russian meddling investigation that’s stalled.

“The regular activities of the committee have been suspended, for reasons that are mystifying to all of us,” Himes said, adding that Republicans “are just as much in the dark as we are.”

“Our oversight obligations don’t stop just because our chairman has stumbled upon something that concerns him,” Himes said, referring to Nunes’ comments on the secret documents.

Nunes projected confidence Tuesday that the investigation would move ahead. When asked if the office had directly contacted the FBI to work out a schedule with Comey, he said simply “yes.”

The FBI press office said that they had “no information to give” when asked if an official request for Comey to appear had been made. Though the official added, “We continue to be in contact with the committee.”

In the House, and at the White House, most Republicans continued to stand by Nunes. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., however, told The Hill website that Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, should “absolutely” recuse himself from the investigation. But, when asked if he intended to remove Nunes from the Intelligence committee chairmanship, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said “No.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a former chair of the House oversight committee, said the complaints of Democrats were merely “partisan.”

“Devin did nothing wrong,” he said.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican on the committee, said through a spokesperson that he “retained full confidence in the chairman.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who a week ago said the committee must keep a strong focus on Russia’s meddling in the election, continued to back Nunes.

“Chairman Nunes will conduct a fair and impartial inquiry into this critical issue which merits seriousness,” she said. “The sacred nature of our elections demands that our committee delve into any question of Russian interference and that we bring all pertinent witnesses to testify before us.”

At the White House, spokesman Sean Spicer said it was important for those questioning Nunes efforts to keep the president informed to remember: “He is running an investigation which we asked for.”

Beyond that, he said the value of the secret documents that Nunes had found, which Nunes acknowledged Monday that he had viewed late at night at the White House, should overrule questions about how he found them and who directed him to them.

“Is there somewhat of a double standard when it comes to classified information?” Spicer said. “When leaks are made illegally to the press, and you all report them, the coverage focuses almost entirely on the substance of the allegation and . . . not on the illegal nature of the disclosure, the identity of the leaks or their agenda.”

Still, the furor shows no sign of decreasing. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, another California Democrat, issued a statement lamenting the cancellation of Tuesday’s public hearing and noting how the probe had slowed after last week’s public hearing, where Comey acknowledged that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

“The open hearing last week provided the public the first acknowledgment of an FBI investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, a direct repudiation of the president’s claim that he had been wiretapped by his predecessor, and also the most extensive discussion to date of the how the Russians accomplished this unprecedented intrusion into the nation’s electoral process,” Schiff said. “Today’s hearing would have built upon that understanding, but it was unfortunately and abruptly canceled.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10

Matthew Schofield: 202-383-6066, @mattschodcnews

Related stories from McClatchy DC