Two Representatives from California at Odds over Interference Investigation

Democrat Adam Schiff and Republican Dave Nunes are both US Representatives from California, they both serve on the House Intelligence Committee, and they used to have a warm working relationship. During the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election party, divides in the traditionally non-partisan committee emerged and the relationship between the two men deteriorated rapidly. Once friendly towards each other, the chairman and ranking member now find themselves completely at odds.

The “Midnight Run” and it’s Consequences

On Tuesday the 21st of March 2017, Nunes was sharing a ride with a staffer when he took a phone call. After that call ended, he switched to another car and left, without telling his staff where he was going. It turns out that he was headed to the White House where he would meet with Ezra Cohen-Watnick and  Michael Ellis, the National Security Council Senior Director for Intelligence and White House National Security lawyer. During this meeting, he was briefed and given documents about the incidental collection of information relating to Trump and his associates.

[I]ncidental collection happens when court-approved surveillance of an intelligence target picks up communications involving US persons who are not the formal target of the surveillance.

In Schiff’s opinion, the midnight run “really changed the trajectory of the committee’s work.”

The Unexpected News Conference

The day after the midnight run, on Wednesday the 22nd of March, Nunes called a press conference without telling his staff why.

During the news conference, Nunes revealed that he had seen unmasked documents from FISA surveillance which incidentally collected information about Trump and his associates. In other words, the intelligence community was watching foreign nationals who talked to the president or his transition team at some point, and that the names of these people were in the document. Nunes would later tell Schiff that “most of the names in the intercepted communications were in fact masked.”

Incidental collection, like that experienced by the president and his team, is very normal. If you record one person’s phone calls, then you also record the person whom they are calling. Because of that, this incidental collection is not surprising and doesn’t, in and of itself, incriminate anyone.

A Briefing for Trump and Second Press Conference

Rep. Nunes didn’t share this intelligence material with his committee before the news conference and didn’t share it with them directly afterward either. Instead, he went to the White House and personally briefed Trump on the materials. “I had a duty and obligation to tell him because, as you know, he’s taking a lot of heat in the news media.”

After this briefing, he held another press conference, this time on the White House lawn.

Schiff’s Reaction

Schiff considered these actions by Nunes to be “beyond irregular”, and shortly after the second press conference he released a statement which explained that Nunes had shared this information with the Press and the President before members of his own committee. This fact, Schiff felt, had put “quite a profound cloud over our ability to do our work”, threatening the credibility of Intelligence Committee investigation.

“The chairman will either need to decide if he’s leading an investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both.” 

Nunes has been described by Steve Bannon as Trump’s second strongest ally in Congress.

“Stepping Down”

Monday the 27th of March, Schiff called on Nunes to recuse himself. The next morning, Nunes publically declines, saying that if Democrats think he is too close to Trump, that it “sounds like their problem”. House Speaker Ryan was inclined to agree, saying he saw no reason for Nunes to recuse himself.

However, just over a week later on the 6th of April, Nunes was forced to temporarily step down from a leadership position in the Interference investigation due to an Ethics investigation into his “apparent secret coordination with White House officials”. He claimed that the allegations against him were “false and politically motivated”. Rep. Conaway was temporarily left in charge while Nunes was under investigation.

Schiff says that isn’t the full story. “The reality was that he never stepped aside.” According to Schiff and other committee members, Nunes continued to issue subpoenas and send his staff on investigative trips. When members attempted to ask Rep. Conaway to do things, he would say that he had to “run that up the stain” to Rep. Nunes. During this period, Schiff began his own parallel investigation in secret.

Nunes was cleared by the Ethics Committee in December of 2017 and returned back to his position as head of the committee. This surprised some who had thought he recused himself, rather than temporarily excusing himself from his duties on the committee.

Internal Discontents

During this period with Rep. Nunes as “shadow” chair and after, the committee suffered conflicting goals.  Starting at the beginning of the investigations, many of the Republican committee members did not show up to the witness interviews. Those who did would ask witnesses questions in a plain and bold manner.

[Rep. Gowdy] would ask witnesses if they knew the definition of “collusion, coordination and conspiracy,” and then whether they had evidence Trump campaign associates had done any of the above. Exchanges, like one between Gowdy and Carter Page, an early foreign-policy adviser, who was then the target of an FBI investigation, often went nowhere.

Rep. Mike Quigley stated that many “Republicans were pissed that these interviews were going so long.” He didn’t agree with that attitude, stating that the interviews were so long because witnesses wouldn’t answer the questions asked by the committee.

The Nunes Memo

Due to the information which Nunes received in March of 2017, he and his staff created a four-page memo which alleged that the FBI “may have relied on politically motivated or questionable sources” to obtain the 4 FISA warrants for Carter Page which ended up collaterally collecting on Trump and his associates during the campaign.

The Nunes memo’s core allegation is that the FBI and Department of Justice misled at least one federal judge on a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court during the Trump-Russia investigation.

Originally private, in January 2018, the public pressured for its release with the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign on various social media platforms. Despite containing some classified information, the memo was publically released on 2 February 2018. It later came to light that Russian bots helped spread the campaign.

“Schiff Memo” as Rebuttal

Democrats on the committee objected to the release of the Nunes memo because they considered it to be “deeply misleading”.  An outside commenter stated, “This embarrassingly flawed memo is a disgrace. House Republicans should be ashamed. ”

In response, the Democrats of the Committee prepared a 10-page rebuttal, which was originally stalled by Trump, though eventually released on 24 February.

The Democrats’ rebuttal memo, written by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), argues that the Nunes memo is full of “distortions and misrepresentations” that don’t stand up to scrutiny based on the underlying classified evidence […] Schiff makes his case. He quotes key FBI documents that explicitly contradict the Nunes memo’s core arguments.

Allegations of White House Meddling

Schiff alleged that Rep. Nunes “never stopped being a member of the Trump transition team”. As evidence of his claim, he points to what Nunes said during the hearing to determine if the “Schiff Memo” should be released.

“Nunes was asked repeatedly during the hearing whether he or his staff coordinated with the White House,” Schiff said. “He refused to answer. At the end of the hearing, he issued a one-sentence statement that said the White House had not been involved in ‘drafting the memo.’ That statement looked like it was written by the lawyer for the committee.”

The End of the Investigation

Despite Democrats objections, arguing that there were lines of investigation to be explored, the Republicans on the Committee voted to end the Interference probe. The final report, released April 2018, found no evidence of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, and shockingly denied that Putin had even attempted to help Trump.

During the course of the investigation, the committee interviewed most of the key witnesses in the Russia investigation such as Don Jr. While they had promised to release all of the interview transcripts at the end of the investigation, they failed to make good on that promise.

Schiff was not amused. “Apparently the public will have to wait until the majority changes to see what kind of investigation the majority was doing. I think probably the reason why the Republicans decided to renege on their commitment is, the transcripts reveal among other things how often the majority acted as defense lawyers for the president rather than true investigators. And I think they’re embarrassed by that.”

Pressure to Release Transcripts

In late June 2018, Schiff began to pressure Rep. Nunes to release the interview transcripts, believing they would aid the Mueller investigation by shining “additional light on the issues of collusion and obstruction of justice.”

Because testimonies given by many are “inconsistent with the public reports of meetings, conversations and other facts that have now been established”, Schiff believes that some of the witnesses might have lied to the committee, and he wants Mueller to “consider whether perjury charges are warranted.”

Republicans have refused to release the transcripts, stating that they are “protecting the Special Counsel’s investigation”. Schiff disagrees with this justification and says that when he spoke with Mueller, Mueller had no objection to the committee releasing the transcripts.

A Continued “Secret” Investigation

Begun during Rep. Nunes’s ethics investigation, the “secret” democratic investigation led by Schiff continues. Without the help of Republicans, they are not able to issue subpoenas, but they continue to quietly collect documents and interview willing witnesses.

For his part, Rep. Schiff continues to make television appearances. “I am deeply alarmed at what I see the president doing to the country, and what I see as the complicity of my colleagues,” Schiff says. “It’s really hard to overstate the significance of what they’re doing. I don’t want people to assume that because I’m calm, it doesn’t mean that I’m not desperately concerned.”

A GOP aide who requested anonymity to speak freely about the investigation said he doesn’t think Trump “has ever faced an adversary quite like Schiff, and it’s freaking him out.”

“First off, he’s a skilled prosecutor with an acid tongue, and a command of all the facts including the most deeply held classified information,” the aide told me. “Second, he’s not in leadership and therefore doesn’t have to consider being at the negotiating table like [Chuck] Schumer or [Nancy] Pelosi do. Third, he’s got a squeaky clean record (wouldn’t have ascended to that position if he didn’t) and comes from a district where when Trump lashes out at him, it only makes him more powerful and popular.”

But despite his methodical nature and determination, Schiff has struggled to “say something with bite”. Maybe his evidence will speak loud enough for the both of them.



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