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Questions About Nunes' White House Visit, Canceled Yates Testimony Dominate Intel Panel

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is pursued by reporters as he arrives for a weekly meeting of the Republican Conference on March 28, 2017, on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — This week’s spotlight on the House Intelligence Committee turned from Monday questions over Chairman Devin Nunes’ (R-Calif.) presence at the White House before an announcement about mysterious documents that alluded to the Trump campaign to questions surrounding canceled hearings before the panel this week.

Some Democrats are calling for Nunes to step down as chairman of the committee investigating potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, while Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), recently presenting a unified front with Nunes on the committee traditionally known for its bipartisan cooperation, said Nunes “should recuse himself from any further involvement in the Russia investigation.”

“This is not a recommendation I make lightly, as the chairman and I have worked together well for several years, and I take this step with the knowledge of the solemn responsibility we have on the Intelligence Committee to provide oversight on all intelligence matters, not just to conduct the investigation,” Schiff added, citing Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation as precedent.

On Wednesday, Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) held a press conference announcing  that he “recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition” in legal surveillance not related to Russia. He then rushed over to the White House to share the information with President Trump, speaking again to reporters outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nunes did that before informing committee Democrats, angering members of the panel and prompting a closed-door apology from the chairman on Thursday. He told reporters he regretted his “judgment call” and has continued to give interviews, including after it was revealed that he was at the White House the evening before announcing the incidental collection, aka when communications with U.S. persons are intercepted in FISA-approved surveillance of foreign targets.

Nunes told CNN on Monday evening that he “had been working this for a long time with many different sources and needed a place that I could actually finally go, because I knew what I was looking for and I could actually get access to what I needed to see” at the White House instead of utilizing the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities that exist for House members and senators on Capitol Hill. “I’m not going to tell you where I was at on the [White House] grounds, because, of course, those are all classified facilities.”

Nunes said dropping in at the White House “wasn’t actually that exciting” and “I wasn’t sneaking on.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Monday that he didn’t know which White House staffer signed in Nunes. The Trump administration has not yet made active a public online database of White House visitors that was implemented in the last administration.

Spicer also replied that “anything is possible” when asked if Nunes got his information that he delivered to Trump the next day from a White House source. “I can tell you through his public comments is he has said he had multiple sources that he came to a conclusion on,” Spicer said. “The degree to which any of those sources weighed on the ultimate outcome of what he came to a decision on, I don’t know.”

Nunes told CNN he’s “quite sure that people in the West Wing had no idea I was there.”

“If I really wanted to, I could have snuck on to the grounds late at night and probably nobody would have seen me, but I wasn’t trying to hide. In fact, I stopped to talk to several people there just along the way, including, like I said, many foreigners,” he added.

“…I wasn’t planning on going to the White House the next day. But after I was able to read what I read, I realized it had nothing to do with Russia, but had everything to do with individuals who were — whose names were included into intelligence reports. I was very concerned and I thought that the president of the United States should know. And that’s why I went and told him.”

Nunes said “for the most part” names in the documents he viewed “were masked,” but “it was pretty clear who they were talking about, you know, what the reports were referring to.”

“It bothered me that this level of information would be included in intelligence reports, because it just wasn’t necessary, from my point of view, legal or not,” he added.

Intelligence Committee member Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told MSNBC that before Nunes “went on the Trump transition team, we never saw anything like this.”

“What is so disturbing is that he said he’s had this information for a very long time, which raises the question, well, if you had it for a long time, why didn’t you share it with the ranking member on our committee?” Swalwell said.

Another committee member, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), noted to CNN this morning that “this all started to explode last week after Director Comey said not only was he doing an investigation, but he was doing an investigation of the Russian connections with the Trump campaign.”

“I don’t trust him,” Speier added of Nunes. “I mean, I think he’s a very nice man. I think he is frankly over his head. I think he used very poor judgment. And I think he has tainted the committee. I actually think that there is an effort underway to shut this committee down by the president. He does not want this committee’s investigation to move forward. And if he can knock us off, then he’s only got to find a way to knock off the Senate investigation.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the floor of the upper chamber Monday that Nunes “is falling down on the job and seems to be more interested in protecting the president than in seeking the truth,” and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) should replace the chairman if he “wants the House to have a credible investigation.”

Ryan told reporters in one-word answers on Capitol Hill today that Nunes should not recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He also said he doesn’t know the identity of Nunes’ sources.

A highly anticipated open hearing scheduled for today — including Sally Yates, the former deputy attorney general fired by President Trump, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan — was called off in what Schiff branded an “attempt to choke off public info.”

The Washington Post reported that the White House tried to keep Yates from testifying, publishing what appears to be a Justice Department official telling Yates’ lawyer in a March 24 letter that executive privilege would “likely” limit what she would be allowed to tell the committee.

Yates, who was fired by Trump for refusing to defend his executive order banning travel from a handful of Muslim-majority countries, reportedly warned the White House in late January that then-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had been communicating with the Russian government and could be a vulnerable blackmail target.

Today, Spicer called any assertion that “we stood in the way… 100 percent false.”

“I hope she testifies,” Spicer said. “I look forward to it … if they choose to move forward, great. We have no problem with her testifying, plain and simple.”

Nunes said the hearing was called off to allow time for FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers to come back in and answer more questions behind closed doors. But that meeting didn’t happen, either. Nunes’ spokesman said Comey “couldn’t come in tomorrow as we hoped,” while the FBI said they had not received a formal request for additional Comey testimony from the Intelligence Committee.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told CNN this morning that “following the House investigation is like following a mystery novel — you never know what is going to happen next.”

“I have a great deal of confidence in the Senate investigation because it is bipartisan,” Collins said. “The chairman and the vice chairman, Richard Burr and Mark Warner, are working hand in glove and given the membership of our committee, I am convinced that we will do a thorough, credible investigation and follow the evidence wherever it leads us.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CBS that Nunes has “a lot of explaining to do.”

Of the House chairman’s explanation for his pre-Trump briefing White House visit, McCain said, “I’ve been around for quite a while and I’ve never heard of such thing.”