'Political theatre': The House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation is nearing the point of no return

Mark Wilson/Getty Images(L to R) House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) and ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).
  • The House Intelligence Committee released the transcript of a heated meeting that took place earlier this week, during which members voted to release a Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo released earlier this month.
  • The meeting quickly took two separate paths, with Republicans targeting the FBI and Democrats targeting the White House.
  • Given President Donald Trump’s decision not to declassify the Democratic rebuttal a week after releasing the Nunes memo, it appears unlikely the two warring factions on the committee will reach a consensus any time soon.

The widening rift between Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russia’s election interference was laid bare on Friday when the committee released the transcript of a contentious business meeting it had earlier this week.

Committee members voted during Monday’s meeting to release a Democratic rebuttal memo written by ranking member Adam Schiff, which pushes back on the assertions made in a prior memo from Chairman Devin Nunes that was released last week.

Trump on Friday declined to declassify the Democratic rebuttal. The White House counsel Don McGahn said in a letter to the committee that Trump was unable to declassify it because of “numerous properly classified…sensitive passages.” The White House directed the DOJ to assist the committee in making changes that would facilitate the document’s release.

McGahn’s letter also came attached with a classified document, not viewable to the public, from FBI director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in which both officials outlined specific parts of the memo they said would be detrimental to national security and law-enforcement capabilities.

The move by the White House marked a significant departure from Trump’s actions last week, when he declassified the Nunes memo after the DOJ sent a similar letter warning against releasing the document without significant changes and redactions.

The House Intelligence Committee has been in disarray since last year, when Nunes began carving out his own independent investigation – despite recusing himself from matters related to the Russia probe – into what he characterised as misconduct by the Obama administration, the FBI, and the Department of Justice. The Nunes memo was the first in a series of reports he will release which document that alleged misconduct.

Meanwhile, Monday’s meeting was another clear indication that Democrats and Republicans on the committee are chasing separate paths in the Russia investigation, and a compromise is unlikely as hostilities continue escalating between the two warring factions.

Off to a rough start

The Nunes memo purports to show surveillance abuses by the FBI and the Department of Justice when seeking a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

It made a number of claims that centered on former British spy Christopher Steele and the so-called Steele dossier, an explosive collection of memos alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Among other things, the memo said the FBI and Department of Justice did not inform the FISA court of the dossier’s politically-motivated funding; that Steele’s contacts with the media and a senior DOJ official made him an unreliable source; and that the dossier was the primary basis for the Page FISA application.

Schiff, the committee’s ranking member, pointed out during the meeting Monday that the Nunes memo – which most experts slammed as a set of Republican talking points meant to defend Trump from the Russia probe – “revealed a lot,” including that the FBI and DOJ were able to demonstrate to the FISA court, on four separate occasions, that they had probable cause to believe Page was acting as a Russian agent.

And most importantly, he said, the Nunes memo confirmed that the Russia investigation was launched based on George Papadopoulos’ conversation in 2016 with an Australian diplomat, during which he boasted about Russia having dirt on Hillary Clinton, not the Steele dossier.

Schiff went on to tear into the Nunes memo, saying it included “cherry-picked” information that mischaracterized the FISA process and the investigation. He added that releasing the first memo did “such tremendous damage to the committee’s credibility as an oversight body, and to the public’s confidence in law enforcement and intelligence agencies.” Nunes only aimed to “satisfy an audience hungry for validation,” Schiff said, and “that audience was the President of the United States.”

Dossier, dossier, dossier

The Steele dossier and its funding were a hot point of debate between Republicans and Democrats who duked it out this week over the opposing memos’ claims.

Republican Rep. Michael Turner said on multiple occasions that the Democratic memo, which has yet to be released, does not include information that disproves the Nunes memo’s claim that the FISA court was not aware that the dossier was funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.

According to a January letter to the DOJ from Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, the FBI said in two footnotes in its FISA application that the dossier’s production was politically motivated. An official with knowledge of the matter also told The Washington Post last week that the DOJ made “ample disclosure of relevant, material facts” to the FISA court which revealed “the research was being paid for by a political entity.”

But the court was not told, specifically, that the Clinton campaign and the DNC were behind that funding, a point Turner touched on at multiple times throughout the meeting.

Democratic Rep. Jim Himes countered Turner’s claim, saying that the dossier’s funding was “not, in any way, shape, or form, either intellectually or legally material.” He added that the existence of a “fully unbiased source or informant is extraordinarily rare, if not non-existent.”

“But you’d acknowledge, right, that there is nothing in the Democrat memo, and there is no evidence that you are aware of that the court … was informed that the information that was presented to them … was, in fact, paid for by the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign?” Turner pressed.

“No, there is nothing in the Democratic memo … that says that,” Himes replied.

“That is the purpose of the majority memo. That is why it has the heading of, ‘FISA abuses,'” Turner later added.

Michael Cohen reclaims the spotlight

Republican Rep. Peter King drew attention to another claim Himes had made: while parts of the dossier are still uncorroborated, none of its claims have specifically been proven untrue.

In particular, King brought up the dossier’s allegation that Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, met with a Russian agent in Prague in August or September of 2016.

The purpose of the alleged visit, the dossier said, was to “clean up the mess” that resulted from two revelations: that former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was politically tied to Ukrainian president and pro-Russian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, and that Page had contacts with multiple top Russian officials.

Cohen vehemently denied the allegation and tweeted out a photograph of his US passport, saying, “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews” After facing sharp criticism from observers who said the photo of his closed passport didn’t prove he hadn’t been to Prague, Cohen showed the inside of the document to BuzzFeed News.

According to photographic evidence of his passport posted online by BuzzFeed, Cohen does not appear to have visited the Czech Republic during the dates indicated in the dossier. He has said, moreover, that he was in California with his son at the time of the alleged Prague Russia meeting.

US citizens are able to hold multiple passports, but Cohen denied having any additional ones outside of the passport he showed to BuzzFeed. Manafort, according to court documents filed last year, held three valid US passports at the time he was indicted by the special counsel Robert Mueller.

Cohen’s alleged visit to Prague became a subject of intense debate during the House Intelligence Committee’s meeting on Monday. When King said that there was no evidence proving Cohen did in fact visit Prague and meet with representatives of the Kremlin, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell countered, “Would you support subpoenaing Mr. Cohen’s bank records, travel records, communication logs, so we are not just taking him at his word but we could actually verify that through a third party?”

King replied that he would not object but added that Cohen had testified previously to the committee that he had never been to Prague.

“And George Papadopoulos also said he had never met with Russians until the third interview with the FBI,” Swalwell shot back.

Schiff interjected and said while the committee had the chance to ask Cohen questions about the alleged meeting during his testimony, the minority did not have the chance to ascertain whether he was being truthful, because Republicans have not yet approved multiple subpoena requests from Democrats.

Those requests relate to Cohen as well as other key players in the investigation, including Trump’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr., and longtime adviser Roger Stone. Democrats’ requests to subpoena Twitter and Deutsche Bank – both of which are hotbeds of Russian activity and potential leads in the investigation – have also not yet been approved.

“So if you simply intend to rely on self-interested witnesses’ testimony, that is not much of an investigation,” Schiff said.

Mike Quigley, another Democrat on the panel, echoed Schiff’s point and highlighted the difference in the committee’s response when it interviewed Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist. Bannon was subpoenaed by the committee in January after he refused to answer questions about his tenure in the White House.

“So Mr. Bannon comes and he doesn’t answer questions, and apparently, he is a man without a country because nobody seems to like him,” said Quigley. “And, damn, we got a subpoena out right away because he has got to answer these questions. All of a sudden, we are really efficient when we want to be. That is not how to do an investigation.”

A red herring

SteeleScreenshot

Schiff and King also got into a heated debate on the dossier’s overall credibility and its use in the Page FISA application.

King said, at one point, that the FBI and DOJ “submitted” the dossier “to the court. You would have thought on such a key element as that, about Mr. Cohen, the President’s lawyer, actually meeting with a Russian agent, they would have done some investigation on their own.”

“And there is no evidence they did,” he added. “There is nothing to substantiate it.”

It’s unlikely that investigators included the allegation about Cohen’s Russia meeting in the Page application, a point Schiff highlighted. “This seems to be a complete red herring,” he said.

When King replied that the Cohen allegation was in the dossier, Schiff reminded his colleague that the FBI and DOJ had only used specific portions of the dossier relating to Page in their application. “That is one of the very misleading points the majority has been making, as if the entire dossier was in -“

“Reclaiming my time,” King said. “If the dossier was going to be submitted – if the FBI could find a factor in the dossier which was misleading, even if it did not directly relate to Carter Page, it goes to the integrity of the dossier and relates to other matters in there on something so clearly factual.”

The FBI has independently corroborated several portions of the dossier. The Senate Intelligence Committee is also using the document as a roadmap in its Russia investigation. In addition to select parts of the dossier the FBI submitted as part of the FISA application for Page, multiple senior officials and a FISA court judge signed off on renewals to continue monitoring the former campaign aide. Each renewal indicated that an official had found additional probable cause to surveil Page.

‘The canary in the coal mine’

California Rep. Eric Swalwell, meanwhile, suggested it could be a possible conflict of interest for the committee to send over sensitive materials about the Russia investigation to Trump, who is a central figure in the probe.

“When you send over either a memoranda or a FISA application for review by President Trump or his White House counsel, you are sending over evidence to them for their review that they have not seen before,” Swalwell said. “Because no suspect would be given the answers to the questions before their interview.”

While Swalwell said he was “worried” the committee was undermining the independence of the investigation by releasing sensitive information, the Democratic memo “is the only antidote to the poison the majority has inflicted upon a serious investigation.”

Sources told Business Insider earlier this week that the Democratic memo will also touch upon former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe’s testimony before the committee last year and push back on the Nunes memo’s characterization of it. Swalwell said as much on Monday. “What you said he said is not true. You have the transcript. You didn’t quote from the transcript because it simply was not true.”

The California Democrat went on to lay out the multiple instances during and after the campaign when individuals in Trump’s circle either met with, or solicited information from Russia-linked individuals or organisations. In addition to Manafort, Page, Papadopoulous, Trump Jr., and Cohen, several other Trump associates are key figures in the probe, including: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, senior adviser Jared Kushner, senior campaign official Sam Clovis, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, former transition official K.T. McFarland, and former campaign adviser Rick Gates.

“I don’t know what you would call that, but I would call it something worth at least looking into and at least showing up for them when we have these witnesses come in,” Swalwell said, adding that the committee should also be wiling to issue subpoenas “so that it is not just take them at their word.”

George Papadopoulos, he said, “is the canary in the coal mine. He was interviewed January 27, 2017, by the FBI. He lied about his contacts over in London with the professor. He was interviewed again in February, and he lied.”

“Only when the FBI showed the willingness to subpoena his Skype and Facebook logs did he come around six months later,” Swalwell said. “That is the doggedness you have to show in an investigation, not just taking them at their word.”

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in early October to one count of making false statements to investigators about his contacts with Russians. He is now cooperating with the special counsel.

‘I am not yielding’

Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro got into a tussle with Turner toward the end of the meeting, particularly when Castro said he was interested in knowing whether Nunes and Republicans on the committee were “just trying to protect the President or whether they are doing a legitimate investigation,” adding that it was “very bothersome” that Republicans would not address that.

When Turner asked if Castro would yield to a response, Castro replied, “No. Listen, you have interrupted everybody. I am not yielding.”

When Turner attempted to respond, Castro reclaimed his time and said he wanted to hear from Nunes, as the committee’s chairman, about whether there had been any coordination with the White House regarding the first memo. “Mr. Turner is nowhere near the chairmanship,” he said.

“Excuse me, I think I still can comment. You are directing -” Turner said.

“I would like the chairman to answer that question,” Castro said.

“Will the gentleman yield so I can at least respond to the premise of your question, because you did just besmirch all of us?” replied Turner.

“Listen,” said Castro. “I don’t want to hear from you. You have interrupted everybody. I would like to hear from the chairman.”

Nunes replied that he would not “entertain political theatre on behalf of this committee.”

The chairman added near the end of the hearing that, along with the DOJ’s guidance, he would support efforts to make the underlying intelligence for the Page FISA warrant available to committee members.

Schiff requested that along with the Democratic rebuttal memo, the minority be allowed to attach a letter asking the White House to coordinate with the FBI and the DOJ and separately itemize redaction requests. This would ensure, Schiff said, that the committee knew whether a specific request for redaction was made for political or national-security reasons. Nunes replied that he would work with Schiff to meet his letter request.

When Schiff asked Nunes to commit to facilitating the process to release the Democratic memo as he did for the Republican document, Nunes said he would.

Responding to ongoing questions about his coziness with Trump, Nunes also said toward the end of the meeting that he had not been in contact with the White House over the memo’s production.

“Would the gentleman like to question the stenographer again?” Nunes asked Schiff.

“I have every confidence in the stenographer,” Schiff replied. “She is not the one I am worried about in this room.”

Following Trump’s decision on Friday not to declassify the Democratic memo as it stands, the committee will likely begin the process of making changes to the document to facilitate its release. Meanwhile, Nunes is gearing up for “phase two” of his investigation, as he calls it, into misconduct at the FBI and top government agencies. His next targets, according to sources and media reports, are the State Department and a second Trump-Russia dossier the FBI possesses.

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