- 19 марта, 12:05
- POLITICO. Top Stories
What was it like inside the partisan hot mess that was the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of President Donald Trump and the 2016 Russian election meddling?
Republicans abruptly shut down the probe last week, giving no notice to their Democratic counterparts before announcing they had not uncovered proof of Trump or his campaign’s “collusion” with the Russians and, what’s more, they did not even agree with the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia had interfered in 2016 specifically with the goal of electing Trump. Trump gleefully tweeted out the news, in all capital letters in case the point wasn’t clear.
But the timing seemed terrible. The sudden end to the House probe came the very same week the president himself—while stepping up his attacks on special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt”—finally and belatedly authorized new sanctions to respond to the Russian hacking. Newspaper editorialists, angry Democrats and even a few Republicans had a field day; the Daily Beast summed up the mocking coverage by calling the Republican report the equivalent of a “half-researched term paper.”
The backlash was such that even on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace seemed to eviscerate the House exercise as little more than a cover-up for Trump, pointing out that the committee had never heard from key witnesses ranging from former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadapoulos. “Your conclusion is not conclusive,” he said to one of the Republican members, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
Gowdy—who, it must be noted, is planning to retire after his term is up at the end of the year—seemed to agree, essentially responding: Pay attention to Mueller’s probe and ignore this House report. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “Executive branch investigations have more credibility, they have more tools, and that’s what I think what my fellow citizens ought to be waiting for and have confidence in. Not congressional investigations that are run by guys running for the Senate in California who never met a camera they didn’t fall in love with.”
The TV-loving Californian Gowdy couldn’t resist bashing is Rep. Adam Schiff, the panel’s top Democrat and, over the past year, a reliably omnipresent public scourge of Trump and his Republican defenders on Capitol Hill on the subject of the Russiagate allegations. Schiff, a little-known former prosecutor before his committee began investigating Trump, is not running for Senate, but he is mentioned as a possible candidate for speaker if Democrats take back the House this fall, and he is now a favorite Twitter target of the embattled president, who loves to deride him as “Little Adam Schiff.”
Whatever you call him, Schiff certainly was not in charge of the Republican-led House Intelligence investigation, but instead chief witness to its dysfunction. If you want to understand what a congressional committee gone “off the rails” (as one of its Republican members, Florida GOP Rep. Tom Rooney, called it) looks like, Schiff offered a compelling account in an interview for this week’s Global Politico, recounting a committee process so broken that last week’s follies seemed the logical culmination of a “fundamentally unserious” House Intelligence investigation. Schiff argued that the probe, as incomplete as it was, in fact did turn up “ample evidence” of Trump’s collusion both with the Russians and with the panel’s Republican chairman, Devin Nunes.
“They announced their conclusions, which included among other things that the Russians had not intervened in the election to help Donald Trump. Now, that’s at odds with what the intelligence community has found. It’s at odds with what our committee has found. It’s at odds with what the Senate committee has found. It’s at odds with what Bob Mueller has found,” Schiff pointed out to me. It was “a political statement, not a finding,” which is why, as comments like Gowdy’s on Sunday suggest, “when they were forced to defend it … they couldn’t.”
And indeed, the sense of a Republican investigation shut down so quickly its members hardly had a sense of what they had decided to put out was underscored watching Gowdy and Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican ostensibly leading the probe on Nunes’ behalf, stumble through interviews on the Sunday talk shows.
Did he really mean it when he said the Russian goal wasn’t necessarily to elect Trump, NBC’s Chuck Todd pressed Conaway. “I got us off on the wrong track quite frankly,” Conaway responded.
Ironically, Schiff told me he and Conaway had worked well together in the investigation, blaming most of the breakdown on committee chairman Nunes, who said he would recuse himself after an early incident last year of coordinating with the Trump White House (“the midnight run,” Schiff termed it). Instead, Schiff said, Nunes had continued to run the show—and seemed to be openly coordinating with the Trump White House about it.
“Had Mr. Conaway and I been really given the latitude to run the investigation, it would have been a very different investigation,” Schiff said. “Chairman Nunes, even when he said he was stepping aside after the midnight run, never did, and continued to make all the key decisions—which witnesses would come in; when they would come; and what open hearings we would have; what open hearings we wouldn’t have; what subpoenas would go out; what subpoenas wouldn’t go out—all of these sideshow investigations of FISA abuse and Uranium One and all that—those were all decisions made by Chairman Nunes, not by Mike Conaway.”
Schiff and the Democrats issued their own 21-page memo days after being surprised by the Republican shutdown, offering a long list of witnesses never called and revealing avenues of investigation they were pursuing, including tantalizing hints about a potential NRA-Russia connection and “credible allegations” of Trump having engaged in money laundering on behalf of Russian “oligarchs, criminals, and regime cronies.” Schiff said he would pursue those if Democrats take the House this fall and he returns as the committee’s chairman. (Interestingly, Schiff did not deny reports he might be a candidate for speaker if the Democrats win, telling me that it was his “hope” that current Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will run again. When I said that sounded like a nondenial denial, he replied, “Well, I don’t know what my future holds.”)
Meantime, Schiff was left marveling over a partisan spectacle that seemed to confirm, if nothing else, how committed House Republicans remain to Trump, despite his historically high disapproval ratings for so early in a presidency and the discomfiting facts that have piled up about the Russian plot to help boost Trump’s campaign. That includes, Schiff pointed out, House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he called “complicit in all this.”
“I think one of the really sad realizations over the last year is not what kind of a president Donald Trump turns out to be—I think it was all too predictable—but rather, how many members of Congress would be unwilling to stand up to him, and more than that, would be completely willing to carry water for him. That is a very sad realization,” Schiff said. “I did not expect that. I thought there would be more Jeff Flakes, more John McCains, more Bob Corkers—people who would defend our system of checks and balances, would speak out for decency, who would defend the First Amendment.”
We met for the interview in Schiff’s Capitol Hill office on Friday, before Trump spent the weekend tweeting thinly veiled threats against Mueller’s investigation. But Schiff’s observation still applies—few Republicans aside from the small handful who’ve made it their practice to challenge the president had anything to say about those presidential threats to Mueller this weekend. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of those who has spoken out, warned that if the president does in fact move to shut down the Mueller investigation, it would be “the beginning of the end of his presidency.” But I’m not so sure; if Trump really does ax Mueller, will there be a real outcry among the Republicans who run the House of Representatives?
Last week’s circus in the House Intelligence Committee suggests the sound may be a lot less than deafening.