House Probe into Trump Campaign Ties to Russia in Turmoil as Chair Nunes Rejects Calls to Step Down

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On Capitol Hill, calls are growing for House Republican Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes to step down from his committee’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, as the investigation itself stalls amid the controversy. On Tuesday, the House Intelligence Committee was scheduled to hear testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. But Nunes canceled the hearing last week, a day after Yates and former CIA head John Brennan, who was also slated to testify Tuesday, informed the government they would contradict some statements that White House officials had made. The Washington Post is reporting the White House sought to block Yates’s testimony. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called this report “100 percent false.”

The House Intelligence Committee has now canceled all meetings this week. Lawmakers are calling on Nunes to step down as chair, after it emerged he had met with a source on the grounds of the White House and viewed secret U.S. intelligence reports before supposedly briefing President Trump about the reports. Nunes says the reports indicate Trump or his associates might have been “incidentally” swept up in surveillance carried out by American spy agencies as they conducted foreign surveillance. For more, we speak with Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. His new piece is titled “Russia probe in turmoil as top Dem calls for Nunes’ recusal.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Calls are growing for House Republican Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes to step down from his committee’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. On Tuesday, the House Intelligence Committee was scheduled to hear testimony from Sally Yates, who served as acting attorney general before Trump ousted her after she refused to defend his Muslim travel ban. But Nunes canceled the hearing last week, a day after Yates and former CIA head John Brennan, who was also slated to testify Tuesday, informed the government they would contradict some statements that White House officials had made. According to The Washington Post, the White House then sought to block their testimony, but the White House denies this.

Meanwhile, Nunes is also continuing to face criticism over his actions last week when he traveled to the White House to personally brief President Trump on allegations that he’d seen evidence that U.S. intelligence may have incidentally swept up communications by Trump’s transition team after the November election. Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, later revealed the evidence he saw was shown to him on the White House grounds the night before by a source he has refused to identify. No Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have seen the evidence.

Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to question Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a close adviser, about a previously undisclosed meeting he had with the head of a state-run Russian bank currently under U.S. sanction.

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended the administration’s actions during a heated exchange with April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks.

APRIL RYAN: With all of these investigations, questions of what is is, how does this administration try to revamp its image? Two-and-a-half months in, you’ve got this Yates story today. You’ve got other things going on. You’ve got Russia. You’ve got—you’ve got wiretapping. You’ve got—

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: No, we don’t have that. You—you—I know.

APRIL RYAN: There are investigations on Capitol Hill.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: No, no, I get it, but you keep—I’ve said it from the day that I got here until whenever that there is no connection. You’ve got Russia. If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection. But every single person—

APRIL RYAN: It’s beyond that. [inaudible]—

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: No, I—well, no, that’s—I appreciate your agenda here, but the reality is—

APRIL RYAN: It’s not my agenda [inaudible]—

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Oh, no, no. Hold on. No, at some point, report the facts. The facts are that every single person who has been briefed on this subject has come away with the same conclusion—Republican, Democrat. So, I’m sorry that that disgusts you. You’re shaking your head. I appreciate it, but—but—

APRIL RYAN: I’m shaking my head, and I’m listening, and I’m trying to [inaudible]—

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: I—OK, but understand this, that at some point, the facts are what they are. And every single person who has been briefed on this situation with respect to the situation with Russia—Republican, Democrat, Obama-appointee, career—have all come to the same conclusion. At some point, April, you’re gonna have to take no for an answer with respect to whether or not there was collusion.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, speaking on Tuesday.

To talk more about the probes into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, we’re joined by Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. His new piece is titled “Russia probe in turmoil as top Dem calls for Nunes’ recusal.”

So, welcome back to Democracy Now!, Michael. Can you take us through what happened last week right into this week?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, basically, it’s—you know, we started last week with the rather astonishing testimony from FBI Director James Comey that there has been an active counterintelligence investigation into the—into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government since late last July, so more than three months before the election, which really sort of took Republicans aback. They were not expecting that. They never imagined that it was going to—that Comey was going to break as much news as he did that day. And then, the next day, Devin Nunes, the chairman, goes to the White House and sees these documents that nobody else has seen that—

AMY GOODMAN: Secretly.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Secretly, which seems to take the investigation off in a different direction on the question of whether there was in fact some improper, incidental collection of surveillance of Trump transition people by U.S. intelligence.

Now, you know, remember, Nunes was reacting to Comey shooting down the president’s tweets. This all began, you know, two weeks earlier, when the president was talking about the—started on his tweet storm about how President Obama had wiretapped him. Comey shot that down, said he’d seen no information to back that up, as did Mike Rogers, the NSA director. So, the White House, on its heels, suddenly, the next day, has Nunes down there showing him documents that seems to might support what Trump seemed to say, in some—in some fashion.

And I think that’s where this whole thing broke down. At that point, Nunes is trying to take the investigation off in a different direction. He cancels the hearing for Sally Yates and John Brennan. And at this point, with the disclosure that somebody at the White House let Devin Nunes in, you have all the Democrats on the committee saying Nunes has to recuse himself. And so, we’re—this is a committee investigation that is effectively stalled at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for people who aren’t following this that closely, that revelation, that he went to the White House the day after Comey gave his testimony that shocked Republicans, where he said they were investigating Trump—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —that wasn’t known until recently. It was the next day—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah, until this week. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Until this week. It was the next day, when he publicly went to the White House to brief Trump, to tell him—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —that his—that conversations might have been swept up incidentally in some surveillance—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Mm-hmm, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —that everyone knew that he was at the White House. Now, so, can you explain—well, let’s go to Devin Nunes himself, speaking on CNN on Monday—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —defending his previously undisclosed trip to the White House.

REP. DEVIN NUNES: Here’s the problem. The Congress has not been given this information, these documents. And that’s the problem. So—so, because the—because this is executive branch, it was distributed widely through the executive branch. This was from November, December and January. And these were reports. Just let me reiterate, this had nothing to do with Russia, nothing to do with the Russia investigation. There is no way for the folks that I had been working with to actually—to bring this forward to light. There was no way I could view that, because they couldn’t get it to the House Intelligence Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain what the intelligence chair is saying, that he had to go to the White House. And then you’ve written, Michael, about who you believe it was he met with at the White House. And it raises the question—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —of whether the White House didn’t give him the information, so that he could publicly talk about having it the next day, which would somehow corroborate Trump, say he wasn’t lying, so, as he’s pushing for his healthcare plan, it doesn’t go down because everyone’s calling him a liar.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah, I mean, this is such a morass and a diversion at this point. Look, remember, the week before, Trump goes on Tucker Carlson on Fox and says, “You’re going to see something in the next couple of weeks that’s going to justify my tweets.” Doesn’t refer to—doesn’t say what it is, but suggests the White House has some information. It’s right after that, a few days later, that Nunes goes down to the White House to see this information. He says it wasn’t coordinated with the president. The White House says they don’t know who Nunes was meeting with, which seems bizarre. It was on the White House grounds; somebody had to clear him in. You know, so, from a distance, it looks like there was some sort of collusion here between Nunes, who’s supposed to be investigating this matter in an independent fashion, and the White House, which is, to some extent, the subject of the investigation. So, that’s a reason that so many people, certainly on the Democratic side, have lost confidence in Nunes.

I did point out in the piece that Michael Ellis, who was the chief counsel for the House Intelligence Committee under Chairman Nunes, just recently went to work in the White House counsel’s office on national security and intelligence matters, so that there’s been a lot of speculation that he would have been a natural person to facilitate this arrangement between Nunes and the White House. But neither Nunes nor the White House is talking, so it’s very hard at this point to know precisely what happened, other than, from a distance, it does seem like there was some—some form of collaboration here between Nunes and the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you suggesting that once Comey knocked the Republicans off their feet by saying he was investigating Trump, that they had to take this in a different direction, so you have Nunes working with the White House and now sort of exploding the investigation? And then talk about who was supposed to testify on Tuesday—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —yesterday, the hearing that was canceled, and the significance of what they were going to say.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah, well, look, Sally Yates, to some extent, when she was acting attorney general, before she was fired by President Trump—she’s an Obama holdover—had set the ball in motion by alerting the White House counsel’s office to what she thought was concerning evidence about Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador. These conversations took place on December 29th, the same day that President Obama had imposed sanctions on the—on the Russian government over the election hacking. Everybody at the White House, from Sean Spicer to Vice President Pence, had denied that Flynn had had—had talked to the Russian ambassador, Kislyak, about the sanctions issue. Yates had evidence from the U.S. intelligence community that was not true, and she went to the White House to alert the White House counsel’s office that public statements were being made about these conversations that were not factual. The intelligence community had evidence that Flynn had in fact talked about sanctions. The suggestion is that he was telling the Russian ambassador, “Don’t worry about what President Obama has just done. We’re going to take another look at all this once we come into office in a few weeks.” That, arguably, was undermining what the then-president of the United States had just done. We only have one president at a time. Yates’s main issue was the White House is saying things publicly that are not true. That is ultimately borne out by the fact that the White House fired Michael Flynn over this issue, over misleading Vice President Pence about the nature of these conversations. All of this was something that Sally Yates was going to address in her public testimony.

I should point out, though, Amy, that in some respects, although this whole investigation by the House committee at this point has turned into a fiasco, the ball was actually advanced yesterday because, as a result of that Washington Post account suggesting that the administration was trying to shut down Sally Yates, Spicer went out there at the White House and says, “No, we want her to testimony—testify. We’re not going to invoke executive privilege on this.” And I thought that was an astonishing admission by Spicer. He actually gave the green light for Sally Yates to testify. White Houses, Democrat and Republican, for years, jealously guard executive privilege and often invoke it to thwart congressional investigations. Spicer, whether this was by design or not, essentially gave all that away. And so, at some point, if not the House, then the Senate, will call Sally Yates, and we will hear what she has to say.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the significance of Nunes saying, no, he wants to hear once again from FBI Director Comey?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, look, you know, Nunes may or may not have a legitimate issue that he wants to raise here about incidental collection. And I should point out that, you know, for many years, since the Snowden disclosures, there’s been a lot of talk among civil libertarians about the dangers of incidental collection, that Americans’ conversations are swept up by the intelligence community when they are targeting others, either through FISA warrants or through seven—you know, overseas collection. Innocent Americans are caught up in that, incidentally collected. What happens to those conversations? How much—to what extent are they distributed? That is a legitimate issue to talk about, and there’s nothing wrong with investigating it.

The problem is that the way Nunes has gone about this, he’s turned it into a partisan matter. He seems to be fronting for the White House. What he could have done is taken Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, down with him to look at these documents, so it would be clear this was a bipartisan matter, and, you know, bring in the Democrats to work with him on this. Instead, he did it on his own unilaterally. And as a result, the whole committee investigation seems to be imploding.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you wrote a piece a while ago, Michael, Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story, the book, a book that you wrote.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: That was a book.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, the book.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: It was a book, yeah, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story, all about the probes of Bill Clinton and—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Many years ago, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think an independent counsel is needed in this case?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: No. First of all, I think the number one priority should be to get the facts before the American public. I mean, people want to know at this point, you know, what exactly did happen during the election. Answer those questions about whether there was collusion or collaboration.

If we had the appointment of an independent counsel—and, by the way, it would have to be under Justice Department regulations; we no longer have the Independent Counsel Act—that would be strictly a criminal probe that would go on for a lengthy period of time, cloaked in grand jury secrecy, and the public may never learn what the outcome was. If there are criminal charges, we’d know, if there was a statutory violation of the law by somebody. But, you know, there’s a lot of facts here that may or may not be criminal that the public deserves to know.

Do you remember, Amy, when Eric Holder came in as attorney general? He appointed John Durham to investigate torture by the CIA and the Pentagon, to determine whether there was any statutory violations there. What happened? Durham spent several years with a grand jury investigation, never brought any charges and never produced a public report, because independent counsels don’t. So, the public learned nothing—

AMY GOODMAN: What about—

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: —from that endeavor.

AMY GOODMAN: What about an independent commission or a select committee?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I think that would have been a good idea several months ago, if you could get bipartisan support for it. But at this point, it’s not clear you could ever get bipartisan support. Remember, to create an independent commission, you need legislation passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. Then you have to appoint commissioners. Then they have to hire a staff. I mean, you know, that could drag this thing on even longer.

I think the top priority ought to be for the committees—and now that the House seems to be completely sidetracked, the Senate really has the obligation here—to move quickly, hold public hearings, call witnesses before the—you know, to testify in open session, under oath, and see if we can get some answers to these basic questions about whether or not there was some form of collusion or collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. There’s been a lot of smoke here, a lot of suggestions, a lot of circumstantial evidence cited about contacts or communications. We don’t know who was communicating with who about what. It’s exceedingly murky. And this is a huge issue, in which the public deserves answers.

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