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Nunes Controversy Could Stall House Russia Inquiry


House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. is pursued by reporters as he arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017.

Embattled House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes threw a formerly bipartisan investigation of Russian election interference into doubt Tuesday, as he rejected calls for his recusal and stopped the committee’s work for the rest of the week.

An anticipated closed door briefing with FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers was postponed, deepening the frustrations of Democratic members who said Nunes’ actions over the last week and a-half jeopardized his credibility and undermined his ability to lead the investigation..

Nunes met a source on White House grounds before making his disclosure last week that members of President Donald Trump's transition team were caught up in “incidental” surveillance, according to his spokesman, who added that Nunes wanted “to have proximity to a secure location where he could view the information provided by the source.”

That revelation led ranking Democratic committee member Rep. Adam Schiff to call for Nunes to step away from the Russia investigation.

“Why would I do that?” Nunes asked a small group of reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. “Everything is moving as is,” he added, saying scheduling an open hearing would be “a logical first step” after a meeting with Comey.

But Democrats said the committee's work has stalled.

“To suggest that we need to hear from Comey and Rogers is to suggest that there's only two hours in the day and we have to make a decision,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic committee member. “We could have done both.”

Swalwell said he asked Nunes to meet with all committee members to defuse the situation.

“Just to sit in the same room and talk about what he saw, who he received it from and how it's relevant for what we're trying to do with the Russia investigation. I think that would take a lot of tension out of this process,” he said.

Nunes has still not revealed the identity of the source.

He spoke with reporters and the president about the material last week without informing any of the other 21 members of the House Intelligence Committee, angering Democrats who questioned Nunes' credibility. Nunes later apologized to the committee.

“We're trying to get those documents as rapidly as possible,” Nunes told VOA Tuesday on efforts to brief other committee members. He maintained that his relationship with other members is “good” and that its Russia probe is moving forward.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, speaks to reporters about the actions of Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 24, 2017.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, speaks to reporters about the actions of Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 24, 2017.

Former AG Yates

Nunes' meeting on White House grounds was not the only concern Tuesday.

A Washington Post report said the Trump administration tried to block former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying at an open House Intelligence Committee hearing this week “about the events leading up” to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's firing, “including his attempts to cover up his secret conversations with the Russian ambassador.”

Nunes' cancellation of that hearing prompted Schiff to question “whether the White House's desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege to keep her from providing the full truth on what happened contributed to the decision to cancel today's hearing. We do not know. But we would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without further delay,” Schiff said.

The White House denied taking action to prevent Yates from testifying.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington after a House Republican leadership meeting, Nov. 15, 2016.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington after a House Republican leadership meeting, Nov. 15, 2016.

Congress reaction on Nunes

Fellow Republicans defended Nunes' actions.

“He did the exact right thing from beginning to end and there really is a concerted effort out to undermine him,” Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York, told VOA. “He's really on to something, that's why.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan to replace Nunes as head of the Intelligence Committee, while House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi says the speaker should at least insist that Nunes is not involved in the Russia investigation.

“He has not been operating like someone who is interested in getting to the unvarnished truth,” Schumer said. “His actions look like those of someone who is interested in protecting the president and his party.”

But King said members of the committee stand by Nunes.

“Obviously, the president had nothing to do with it, the information is totally controlled, and it did not leak out at all,” King said. Ryan also said Nunes should not recuse himself.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017.

The White House has defended Nunes' actions, saying he had done his job to investigate allegations of surveillance and was being up front with journalists about his activities.

Trump, who earlier this month tweeted unsubstantiated allegations that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped his campaign while he ran for office, has said he was “somewhat vindicated” by Nunes' statement about the surveillance.

Comey has said that there is no information to support Trump's allegation that Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower in New York. Trump has asked Congress to investigate.

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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