WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are divided over how aggressively to pursue the allegations that President Trump’s associates had contact with Russia, with some lawmakers calling for a full-scale look at the former national security adviser’s communication with Russia while others say there is no evidence of such contacts.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., made clear that he was more interested in nefarious reports published in the news media than in alleged contacts between the Trump team and Russian officials, saying the focus of the House’s probe would be on information leaks – which he called “major crimes.”
“As of right now, I don’t have any evidence of any phone calls. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist. … What I’ve been told by many folks is that there’s nothing there,” Nunes said.
The chairman said that there is no need at this time for a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of contact between Russian officials and President Donald Trump’s campaign aides. Instead, the Republican said that the real problem was frequent leaks to the news media on the subject of Russia, as well as accounts of what should be confidential dealings with the Trump White House, including calls with foreign leaders such as the Australian prime minister.
“There’s been major crimes committed,” Nunes said, referring to the leaks. “What I’m concerned about is no one is focusing on major leaks that have occurred here. … We can’t run a government like this. A government can’t function with massive leaks at the highest level.”
This is the first time a leading House Republican – in this case, the lawmaker who is spearheading the investigation in the lower chamber – has said flatly that he has not seen evidence of inappropriate communications between Trump aides and Russia. The FBI is investigating Russia’s role in last year’s elections and potential ties between Trump associates and Russia.
Nunes’s statements go well beyond what his Republican colleagues in the Senate have signaled when talking about a parallel probe, which Nunes suggested Monday would basically be conducted separately. The Senate Intelligence Committee – headed by Richard Burr, R-N.C. – has promised to thoroughly investigate any contacts between Trump aides and the Kremlin. And it has pledged to specifically probe ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn’s talk late last year with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.
Nunes’s hard-line stance is also at odds with comments by some House Republicans – including former House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Darrell Issa, Calif., who said over the weekend that a special prosecutor should investigate Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. elections.
“What we do know is that the [Vladimir] Putin government is a bad actor who should be carefully scrutinized – and regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on – our country has a vested interest in fully understanding exactly what happened, outside the fog of accusation and political jostling,” Issa said in a statement Monday night. “Any review conducted must have the full confidence of the American people, which is why I recommended an independent review.”
The split between members of the Republican Party casts doubt on whether their congressional investigations in GOP-controlled chambers will proceed in a bipartisan manner as promised – raising significant questions about whether the party would resist attempts by the White House to wield influence over the investigations.
“It obviously weakens the report when it’s seen as being highly partisan,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee. “But if Nunes is seen as being highly partisan and burying the issue for the White House, that’s not going to do any good, either.”
Nunes also rejected the idea that House Republicans will call for the release of Trump’s tax returns, which some Democrats believe would shed light on the president’s potential business dealings in Russia. One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has also said she is open to demanding the tax returns as part of the Senate probe.
Nunes, who advised the Trump administration as a member of the transition team, has tremendous latitude to steer the focus of the Intelligence Committee’s investigation, including determining which witnesses and records the panel will subpoena.
Both the House and Senate intelligence panels began probes at the end of January into what intelligence officials say is Russian meddling in the U.S. elections aimed at benefiting Trump.
The Senate’s review is underway, but the House has yet to receive a single document or interview any witnesses, said ranking Democrat Adam Schiff, Calif., in a news conference Monday afternoon. Schiff said committee leaders promised to release a final agreement about the scope of their investigation Monday, but no information was available by evening.
Schiff called Nunes’ conclusion that there is no evidence of contacts between the Trump team and Russia “premature.” He pointed to the fact that the committee has not received documents, called witnesses or even released the final agreement about the scope of its investigation.
“When you begin an investigation, you don’t begin by stating what you believe to be the conclusion,” Schiff told reporters.
House Republicans and Democrats are also divided about their approach to the investigation. Schiff has agreed to make the leaks part of the House’s investigation – but warned that the focus should be on the substance of what was leaked, particularly as it pertains to Flynn’s contact with Russian officials.
Over Nunes’ objections, Schiff is angling for the committee to receive transcripts of Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador before Trump was inaugurated. Flynn was asked to leave the White House this month after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about discussing sanctions with Kislyak.
Nunes, meanwhile, said that Flynn should be thanked for his service to the country and that the retired lieutenant general was only trying to prepare a new president for office in his discussions. He said that he has not seen the transcripts of Flynn’s call with Kislyak, which would have been “illegally leaked” if he had.
Nunes described Flynn as having done a “big favor” by “keeping lines of communication” open with Russia after President Barack Obama expelled Russian officials from the United States in response to allegations that the country interfered in the U.S. elections.
Nunes also took issue with the definition of “sanctions” – which were imposed on Russia in 2014 for the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine – saying that in his view, Flynn was not discussing official sanctions in his conversations with Kislyak but rather the “petty” retaliation against the officials by Obama.
He called a suggestion that Flynn could be charged under the Logan Act “ridiculous.” The 1799 statute has never been used to prosecute a U.S. citizen for interfering in foreign policy.
Democrats are skeptical that FBI Director James Comey will be forthcoming in the course of their investigation, and they have called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who wielded considerable influence in Trump’s campaign effort, to recuse himself from proceedings. In a briefing with reporters Monday, Sessions would only say he “would recuse myself on anything that I should recuse myself on,” without specifying whether he intended to involve himself in Russia-related matters.
Sessions also stated that he has “not examined” any contacts between the White House and the FBI over a New York Times story that reported frequent contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials.
Nunes also confirmed Monday that he was one of the lawmakers to whom the White House turned to combat the story. The report mentioned Flynn, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former campaign aide Carter Page, as well as Trump associate Roger Stone.
Nunes described the White House giving him a phone number for a reporter. He said he did not see anything inappropriate with the request and his follow-up in calling the reporter.
He was referring to a Washington Post story describing the Trump administration’s efforts to enlist the intelligence community and key lawmakers in knocking down media stories about Trump associates’ ties to Russia.
“I had already talked to many of you about that several times,” Nunes said, saying he was only passing on “whatever I had already told you.” “Isn’t the whole point of the press to be transparent?”
But Schiff said the White House “seeking help from intelligence leadership . . . to knock down stories it doesn’t like is completely inappropriate.”
The Washington Post’s Sari Horowitz and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.