Head of Trump-Russia probe under fire, won't step down
WASHINGTON: The chairman of the White House intelligence committee refused Tuesday to step away from its investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, as fresh political allegations brought new cries of protest from Democrats.
Asked if he should recuse himself, committee chairman Devin Nunes responded, "Why would I?" Later in the day, the White House vehemently denied a report that it had sought to hobble the testimony of a former acting attorney general before Nunes canceled the hearing where she was to speak.
US President Donald Trump's spokesman, Sean Spicer, lashed out at reporters, claiming they're seeing conspiracies where none exist.
"If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that's a Russian connection," he suggested.
The embattled House committee is conducting one of three probes into the election campaign, its aftermath and potential contacts between Trump officials and Russians. The Senate intelligence committee is doing its own investigation, and since late July the FBI has been conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russia's meddling and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
Nunes' decision to cancel Tuesday's hearing was the latest in a series of actions that Democrats contend demonstrate that his loyalty to Trump is greater than his commitment to leading an independent investigation. The California Republican, who was a member of Trump's presidential transition team, has said he met with a secret source last week on White House grounds to review classified material that showed Trump associates' communications had been captured in "incidental" surveillance of foreigners in November, December and January.
Nunes would not name the source of the information, and his office said he did not intend to share it with other members of the committee.
Nor would he disclose who invited him on the White House grounds for the meeting. He described the source as an intelligence official, not a White House official. In an interview on CNN, he suggested the president's aides were unaware of the meeting.
Trump has used Nunes' revelations to defend his unproven claim that Barack Obama tapped phones at Trump Tower. In a series of tweets Monday night, Trump said that instead of probing his associates, the committee should be investigating his Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton's ties to the Kremlin.
"Trump Russia story is a hoax," he tweeted.
Adding to the swirl of questions was the publication of a series of letters dated March 23 and March 24 involving a lawyer for former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
Yates, along with former CIA Director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, had agreed to testify publicly before the House intelligence committee.
The canceled hearing would have been the first opportunity for the public to hear Yates' account of her role in the firing of Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The letters from lawyer David O'Neil, published by The Washington Post, appeared to be in response to a meeting O'Neil had at the Justice Department on March 23 in advance of the hearing.
In them, O'Neil pushes back against what he says is Justice Department guidance on what Yates could say about conversations she had with Trump — conversations the department indicated could be covered by executive privilege.
"We believe that the Department's position in this regard is overbroad, incorrect, and inconsistent with the Department's historical approach to the congressional testimony of current and former senior officials," O'Neil wrote in a March 23 letter to Justice Department official Samuel Ramer. He also wrote that Yates' testimony would cover details that others have publicly recounted.
The Justice Department responded to O'Neil saying that the question of what privileged conversations Yates could discuss was ultimately up to the White House.
Spicer on Tuesday said the White House never sought to stop her. "We have no problem with her testifying, plain and simple," he said.
O'Neil declined to comment Tuesday, and a Justice Department spokeswoman did not return a message seeking comment.
Yates was fired in January as acting attorney general after she refused to defend the Trump administration's first travel ban. She alerted the White House in January that Flynn had been misleading in his account of a December phone call with the Russian ambassador to the United States in which economic sanctions against Russia were discussed. Flynn was ousted after those discrepancies were made public.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said that White House meddling is not helping to "remove the cloud that increasingly is getting darker over the administration."
Democratic members of Nunes' House committee said his ability to lead a bipartisan probe is compromised.
"It's irregular, to be benign about it, to have a lead investigator kibitzing with the people being investigated," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn.
House Speaker Paul Ryan reiterated his support for Nunes, and Nunes himself said all of the controversy was standard for Washington.
"It's the same thing as always around this place — a lot of politics, people get heated, but I'm not going to involve myself with that," he said.