In a sideshow to all that other drama happening on Capitol Hill on Friday, the House Intelligence Committee descended further into confusing farce with another set of dueling press conferences between its top-ranking Republican and Democratic members.
First up was Republican Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who announced to reporters that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had agreed to testify before the committee. Manafort is a central player in the Trump-Russia drama. In addition to allegedly receiving off-the-books payments when he worked for Russian-backed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an AP report this week suggested that, prior to working for Trump, Manafort had worked on a plan to influence politicians and the media on Putin’s behalf. Nunes would not say if that testimony would be public or closed.
Nunes also announced that FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers, who testified in a public hearing on Monday, would return to the Hill for a second briefing behind closed doors. It’s not clear why they have to come back, but Nunes specified that it is not related to the announcement he made on Wednesday that he’s seen documents showing that the intelligence community incidentally collected and then disseminated communications by the Trump transition team. Nunes also said that a planned public hearing on Tuesday with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates had been postponed.
The last announcement in particular caused Democratic ranking member Adam Schiff to go ballistic, by his standards anyway:
BREAKING: Chairman just cancelled open Intelligence Committee hearing with Clapper, Brennan and Yates in attempt to choke off public info.— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 24, 2017
Schiff then held his own press conference in which he essentially accused Nunes of coordinating with the White House to scuttle the Russia investigation. “What other explanation can there be?” he said of the decision to postpone the hearing. He also said that members of the committee had still not seen the documents collected by Nunes in what Schiff called a “dead of night excursion.” He called the fact that Nunes had shared the information with the Trump administration and held a press conference at the White House “important in terms of understanding what's really going on here.”
The strange events of Wednesday—during which the Republican head of the congressional committee tasked with investigating possible Trump-Russia connections went to Trump with information he had gleaned during that investigation—have only fueled growing skepticism, including from members of his own party, about whether Nunes can conduct an impartial investigation. A Democratic member of the committee accused the chairman of running “his own intelligence service.”
Swalwell says Dems have still seen "nothing" from Nunes: "It looks like he's running his own intelligence service, at this point."— Katie Bo Williams (@KatieBoWill) March 24, 2017
It also underscored the degree to which different members of this committee are investigating completely different things. For Republicans, this is about the leaking of classified information meant to damage Trump, notably the conversations between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that forced Flynn’s resignation. There’s also the new but related question of whether the people connected to the Trump campaign, observed during routine surveillance of foreign targets, were improperly “unmasked”—that is, were their identities documented by intelligence agents rather than hidden as would normally be the case for U.S. citizens swept up in incidental collection. (Here’s a useful explainer on the concept.)
Hanging over all of this are the allegations Trump made on Twitter on March 4, and mentioned again in his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that Obama had tapped the phones in Trump Tower during the transition. Nunes reiterated again Friday, as he has before, that “there was no wiretapping of Trump Tower. That didn't happen.” However, he has also previously suggested that Trump’s claims shouldn’t be taken literally and may have instead referred to a broader pattern of surveillance. (This is clearly not what they referred to.) Nunes’ statement about incidental collection on Wednesday certainly did not vindicate Trump’s claim but seemed calculated to give the White House just enough to claim vindication, which Trump and his spokesman did.
For Democrats, this investigation is about the actual degree of Russian interference in the election and what role the Trump campaign itself might have played in it. It’s possible we may finally be getting closer to learning some hard facts on this question, which may be the motivation for the torrent of bullshit unleashed by Nunes over the past week.
Comey confirmed on Monday that there’s an ongoing investigation of links between Trump associates and the Russian government. CNN reported on Wednesday that FBI officials say they have information suggesting that people connected with the campaign were communicating with the Russian government to coordinate the release of hacked information to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Those officials say they can’t prove this collusion yet, but that it’s now a large focus of the investigation. Schiff also said on Wednesday that he’s seen "more than circumstantial evidence" of coordination between Trump associates and the Kremlin.
This is what Democrats have been waiting for. After months of leaks, anonymous quotes from intelligence officials, and investigations by both government agencies and the media, we’ve seen plenty of evidence that there were ethically dubious people with vague ties to Russia in Trump’s orbit. What we haven’t seen is any hard evidence that Trump or his associates were actively working with the Russians to sabotage Clinton. In January, the agencies’ released a declassified version of their assessment that Vladimir Putin was actively trying to help Trump, consisting almost entirely of previously available information, much of it dubiously interpreted. Nearly half of it consisted of a long and irrelevant report on the Kremlin-funded cable network RT. So, despite the reports of the past week, some skepticism is still warranted about whether there is hard proof of collusion, and if so, that we’ll ever see it.
At this point, it looks pretty obvious that the administration’s allies in Congress are working to prevent the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties. It’s less obvious that the investigation itself is turning up the goods.