‘Off the rails’: House Russia probe hits new low
Mistrust, anger and charges of skullduggery between Democrats and Republicans have hobbled the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation for months.
Hope Hicks and a pair of frustrated senators may have finally broken it.
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There are new signs that Republicans may soon conclude a probe that Democrats call far from complete following Wednesday’s testimony by Trump’s confidante, Hicks. Leaks revealed that Hicks had admitted to sometimes telling white lies on Trump’s behalf — a fact that Republicans called an unfair distortion of the departing White House communications director’s testimony.
The next day, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office confirmed that the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee paid an extraordinary visit to Ryan to express their “concerns” about how the House panel is operating — and, according to one report, to accuse Republicans of their own dishonest leaking.
“I want [the House investigation] to end because we have gone off the rails of being able to objectively do our job,” Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said Friday. Rooney said that other GOP committee members agree with him, though he did not name them.
The partial leak of Hicks’ testimony “was the tipping point for me,” Rooney said, adding he had “finally come to the realization that we are not going to put together any kind of a bipartisan product that’s going to help the national security apparatus we oversee or to find out objectively what happened in the last election.”
Rooney has urged the panel’s lead investigator, Mike Conaway (R-Texas), to shut down the probe, which another GOP committee member describes as “nearly” complete. But Democrats insist that dozens more witnesses must testify, including several top Trump associates such as the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
The bitter mood will likely weaken the committee’s final report, which looks increasingly certain to reflect the panel’s partisan fissures. It also escalates pressure on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has largely operated free of political drama, to serve as Congress’ definitive assessment of the Russian plot.
At the same time, it underscores the fact that Capitol Hill is largely relying on special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation to produce the most meaningful account of Russian interference — and whether any Trump associates or other Americans conspired to assist the Kremlin.
The committee itself is facing an existential crisis of sorts. Members of both parties worry that the acrimony and charges of leaks will deter witnesses from cooperating — and could even scare U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies from sharing information.
Speaker Paul Ryan has largely taken a hands-off approach, meanwhile, deferring to committee leaders to resolve confrontations with the FBI and, more recently, with the Senate.
The day after Hicks testified, Ryan’s office revealed that the top Senate Intelligence Committee members, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), had met with him to discuss unspecified “concerns” about the House panel’s handling of the investigation.
The discussion, first revealed by The New York Times, came soon after a set of Warner’s text messages that had recently been supplied to the panel were leaked to Fox News, which cited a “Republican source” for providing the messages. Ryan, according to a spokeswoman, told the two of them to work it out with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
For now, Conaway says he has no imminent plans to end the investigation until all leads have been explored. But he’s expressed hope that the end is near, despite Democrats’ protestations.
Other GOP members of the panel increasingly say they’re satisfied with the probe’s thoroughness and expect it to wrap up soon. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has said he hoped the Hicks interview, following closely on a limited interview of former Trump aide Steve Bannon, might be the panel’s last.