In 2017, President Trump said that President Obama was “tapping" his phones before the election. No proof of eavesdropping ever emerged. But Rep. Devin Nunes is still defending Trump. (Jan. 5, 2018) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)
REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON — It became known as "the midnight run," a dark-of-night dash to the White House compound last March 21 by Rep. Devin Nunes to view classified reports two weeks after President Trump's incendiary claim that President Obama was "tapping my phones" before the 2016 election.
"What I've read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity — perhaps legal, but I don't know that it's right," Nunes, head of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters the next day outside the West Wing. "I don't know that the American people would be comfortable with what I've read."
The unusual episode did more to embarrass the Tulare Republican than help Trump. No proof of improper eavesdropping ever emerged and Nunes was forced to step down from his own committee's inquiry into Russian meddling in the campaign while the House Ethics Committee investigated whether he had disclosed classified information.
But Nunes still used his powerful perch to defend Trump, and he has accelerated those efforts since the ethics panel cleared him of any wrongdoing last month.
While special counsel Robert S. Mueller III conducts a criminal investigation into Trump's current and former aides, producing charges against four individuals so far, Nunes has launched a counteroffensive aimed at derailing or discrediting the federal inquiry that has shadowed Trump's first year in office — and shows no sign of ending.
Since last summer, Nunes has issued subpoenas to Justice Department officials, threatened to hold them in contempt of Congress and written angry demands for internal documents that could show how investigators used a dossier of partly unverified information concerning Trump's alleged ties to the Kremlin.
Democrats say Nunes' focus on the dossier, which was produced by a former British intelligence officer and leaked to the media last year, is a way to divert attention from Russia's meddling in the election to help Trump.
"What do you think the Department of Justice does?" asked Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman during the Obama administration. "It investigates tips they get."
But Nunes won the backing of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) during a meeting in Ryan's office on Wednesday with Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who is Mueller's supervisor, and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.
In a letter to Rosenstein before the meeting, Nunes had accused the Justice Department and the FBI of "intransigence" for refusing to comply with his subpoenas. "It seems the [Department of Justice] and FBI need to be investigating themselves," he added in bold, underlined text.
Rosenstein and Wray told Ryan that committee staff members had been able to view some of the documents, including internal memos summarizing interviews conducted by FBI agents. But they were hesitant to provide reports about sensitive contacts with confidential informants, which are rarely turned over to congressional committees.
In the end, Ryan supported Nunes and Rosenstein, and Wray backed down. As a result, committee members will be able to view the documents, which will probably be partly redacted — material that Nunes may use to fuel his counter-investigation.
"The Speaker always expects the administration to comply with the House's oversight requests, and he will support his chairmen when they make them," said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan.
Nunes isn't the only Republican targeting the dossier.
Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who chairs a Judiciary subcommittee, on Friday urged the Justice Department to investigate Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the dossier, for making what they called "potentially false statements" about his contacts with reporters.
The referral specifically said it "is not intended to be an allegation of a crime," but it marked the first time Republicans have asked for a criminal inquiry related to the 2016 campaign.
The White House and its allies have increasingly attempted to paint the Mueller investigation as politically motivated and fueled by dodgy, Democratic-funded opposition research. On Friday, Trump summed up the complaints in a tweet that combined his frustration with the Justice Department and with publication of "Fire and Fury," a new book that portrays a Trump White House in chaos.
"Well, now that collusion with Russia is proving to be a total hoax and the only collusion is with Hillary Clinton and the FBI/Russia, the Fake News Media (Mainstream) and this phony new book are hitting out at every new front imaginable. They should try winning an election. Sad!" Trump wrote.
Nunes did not respond to requests for an interview.
The Senate Intelligence Committee also is investigating the Russian interference with the campaign, and so far it has covered considerable ground without obvious signs of political rancor. Any bipartisan spirit on the House Intelligence Committee dissolved long ago, however.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, the top Democrat on the panel, accused Nunes of undermining the inquiry into Russian hacking, use of social media and other meddling in the presidential race. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Kremlin-backed interference was intended, at least in part, to help Trump win.
"From the beginning of this investigation there's been an effort to circle the wagons around the White House by the chairman and some of the president's allies," Schiff said in a telephone interview. Nunes, he added, wants to investigate "anyone but the Russians."
Nunes' decision last spring "to become a principal in defending the president created a really partisan environment," said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), another member of the panel.
Himes said the fractured committee could issue two separate reports on the Russia meddling last year, one from Democrats and one from Republicans.
President Trump's lawyers want a second special counsel to investigate the Dept. of Justice, a request that comes as Republicans try to stack up reasons for the American public to doubt whatever Robert Mueller concludes from his probe of Russian interference with last year's campaign.
Republican members of the committee, including Reps. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Peter T. King of New York, declined to comment or did not respond to requests.
Nunes' latest efforts coincide with other Republican attempts to discredit Mueller's investigation and to criticize leadership at the Justice Department.
Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), two leaders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, this week called on Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to resign over concerns about leaks to the media.
"It would appear he has no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world," they wrote in an op-ed published Thursday in the Washington Examiner.
Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment.
In theory, if Sessions quits, Trump could take greater control of the Russia investigation. Sessions recused himself in March for failing to disclose his own meetings with Russia's ambassador. So Mueller is supervised by Rosenstein, who has strongly defended the prosecutor's conduct so far.
A new attorney general could take the investigation back from Rosenstein and move to cut Mueller's budget, limit his authority or otherwise dampen the high-stakes inquiry now underway.