WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee charged that Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has been “continuing” to violate his pledge to recuse himself from the Russia investigation with a letter threatening to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt over a documents and testimony request.
After a trip to the White House and disclosure of documents that reportedly included incidental FISA collection of people associated with the Trump campaign, and the subsequent furor within the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes handed the reins of the investigation into Russia’s campaign influence operation over to Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas).
Nunes’ April decision coincided with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Democracy 21 submitting a formal request March 28 that the Office of Congressional Ethics “conduct a preliminary inquiry into whether Representative Devin Nunes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, disclosed classified information to the public on March 22, 2017 in violation of the House ethics rules.”
On the same day, MoveOn.org Civic Action filed their own complaint with the ethics office asking that Nunes be investigated for “the unauthorized disclosure of classified material by Chairman Nunes for what appear to be blatantly political purposes.”
“Despite the baselessness of the charges, I believe it is in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress for me to have Representative Mike Conaway, with assistance from Representatives Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney, temporarily take charge of the Committee’s Russia investigation while the House Ethics Committee looks into this matter,” Nunes said April 6.
On Sept. 1, in a letter obtained by CNN and signed only by Nunes, the California Republican referenced an Aug. 24 committee subpoena requesting documents about the dossier compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele during the campaign about ties between Donald Trump’s camp and Russians. On Aug. 31, Nunes wrote, the Justice Department and FBI requested additional time past the Sept. 1 deadline to comply with the request.
The letter is addressed to Sessions even though he recused himself from the Russia investigation at the beginning of March.
“There is no legitimate basis for DOJ’s request for additional time to comply, because DOJ and the FBI are well aware of the identity of the requested documents,” Nunes wrote, nonetheless stating that the committee extended the deadline for the last time, to Sept. 14. If that deadline is not met, he added, Sessions and Wray would be called before an open hearing “to explain under oath DOJ’s and FBI’s unwillingness or inability to comply in full with the subpoenas issued on August 24.”
If neither demand is met, Nunes threatened to report a resolution to the full House to find Sessions and Wray in contempt of Congress.
Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) predicted Nunes would not follow through on the contempt threat, though he would be “delighted” to question Sessions in an open hearing.
Schiff said Nunes “shouldn’t be” writing such letters. “This has been a continuing issue. The chairman, when he recused or stepped aside, should have delegated the authority, as our rules permit, to Mr. Conaway, but he was unwilling to do so. So he still formally issues subpoenas. He also, evidently, writes letters to the Department of Justice and the FBI, taking issue with their production, which is also something, frankly, I don’t understand, and we raised as an issue with the majority when they said they wanted to subpoena the department, and that is we hadn’t even sent them a written request, a voluntary request for the information. And our practice has been we request voluntary compliances; it’s only when they refuse that we issue a subpoena. They departed from that practice here,” he told CNN on Wednesday.
“It seems like they want to discredit Mr. Steele and also discredit the FBI’s investigation. I don’t know what’s to be gained by that, honestly. It doesn’t bring us any closer to figuring out what the Russians did and how they did it. So we don’t agree with what they did, and I think it’s an unfortunate distraction.”
Schiff said he and Nunes “don’t discuss the Russian investigation, because he’s purportedly recused himself from it.”
“He really shouldn’t play a role in it. So I confine my discussions on that to Mr. Conaway and the other members who are working on it,” he said. “…And only [Nunes] can explain why he’s taken that role.”
Schiff said money laundering a central aspect of the investigation and “something that Bob Mueller is uniquely capable of ascertaining.”
“Now we know that the Trump organization was pursuing business in Russia, a business that would effectively have to be approved by Putin. At the same time, the campaign was taking a very pro-Russia, pro-Putin policy. Was this being guided by their financial interests? And why did the president make false statements about his financial interests in doing business in Russia at a time when he was pursuing that?” he asked. “That also means that we can’t accept any representations coming from the president or his organization about whether the Russians have done business with him in the past.”
“Real estate is a very convenient way to launder money. And if there was a time when the Trump Organization found it difficult to borrow from banks and responsible financial institutions and had to turn elsewhere, and there was a marrying of interests between the Trump Organization and the Russians, who have historically needed to do launder huge amounts of money, and they did business together in that way, that is far more compromising than any salacious video would be,” Schiff continued. “So in our national interests, we need to make sure, did this happen, did it not happen? If it did, it means the Russians have continuing leverage over the president of the United States.”