The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential connections to Russia’s election meddling isn’t dead — but it’s not exactly dancing a jig, either.
Lawmakers are looking ahead to a second week with nothing on their public calendar following a decision by the Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, to cancel an open hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday with former national security leaders from the Obama administration.
Democrats, led by Nunes’ fellow Californian Rep. Adam Schiff, complained that Nunes was trying to “choke off” public information about the inquiry, and accused him of “obstruction of justice” after he announced he’d been given secret material that he didn’t share with anyone else on the committee — but took straight to the White House.
Nunes said the documents he’d viewed showed that Trump and his aides had been swept up as part of U.S. surveillance of foreign targets after the election, and that identifying information about Americans had been improperly revealed within the classified channels.
Nunes acknowledged that he’d made a “judgment call” to tell reporters and then Trump but not his colleagues — one he ultimately defended.
“This is not an easy process,” he said. “There’s politics on both sides of this and I’m trying to navigate as best I can.”
Despite howls from Democrats, the investigation appears to be moving ahead. Nunes said the committee has invited back FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers for a closed, classified hearing on Tuesday following their appearance at an open one on March 20.
Meanwhile, staff members are negotiating with three key figures in the Trump-Russia imbroglio about coming to testify. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and self-described “dirty trickster” and longtime Trump ally Roger Stone all have come forward to say they are willing to meet with the House Intelligence Committee.
But Nunes’ insistence on making such arrangements “voluntary” means that witnesses could speak to the committee behind closed doors, or make deals about topics that might be off limits, which Democrats say defeats the whole purpose. Or the potential witnesses could not show up or just walk away in the middle of testifying because they are not under subpoena.
Schiff and his fellow Democrats on the committee, however, have little choice but to continue with an investigation they’ve condemned or walk away and have with nothing at all.
Schiff said Friday that he still hopes the committee can move ahead with a credible bipartisan investigation, but said what’s really needed is an independent, special process. Some Republicans, most notably Arizona Sen. John McCain, agree.
Congress has used them in the past, including with a bill in 2002 that created the “National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States” — better known as the 9-11 Commission, chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton.
What are the odds, however, that the Republicans who control the House and Senate would pass a bill to create such a panel, and that President Trump himself would sign it? They’re about the same as Congress creating a special select committee on its own, or authorizing a special investigator within the Justice Department — virtually nil.
The House Intelligence Committee isn’t the only game in town. The Senate Intelligence Committee is also investigating, so far with a much lower profile and no dedicated public events. And the biggest and most potent process is the one that has been underway since last July, being undertaken by the FBI.
The Bureau’s director, Comey, said as little about it as he could on Monday when he appeared before Nunes, Schiff and their colleagues. He declined to respond to most questions about the people with whom the FBI was talking or give any other details.
Comey also declined to give any sense of how long it might take FBI counterintelligence investigators to wrap up their work, meaning that Washington is sitting on top a volcano with no sense about when it might erupt, or how powerfully.
A best case scenario for Republicans might involve a quiet press release by the FBI some Friday evening that says it concluded its work with no charges or no new evidence.
A worst-case scenario might involve Comey stepping before the TV lights to announce a criminal case in the final days before next year’s midterm election, when Democrats want to take away Republicans’ governing majorities in Congress.