Nunes leaves in­tel in­quiry as Rice re­mains on hot seat

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAN BOY­LAN AND GUY TAY­LOR

GOP in­sid­ers say House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Rep. Devin Nunes got the “ge­nie out of the bot­tle” re­gard­ing pos­si­ble mis­con­duct by Pres­i­dent Obama’s top na­tional se­cu­rity aide, Su­san E. Rice, and that his sur­prise de­ci­sion Thurs­day to step aside from lead­ing the panel’s probe into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion was worth it.

Mr. Nunes was a nec­es­sary sac­ri­fi­cial lamb in the open feud be­tween the Trump and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions over the “un­masked” iden­ti­ties of Trump cam­paign as­so­ciates in­ci­den­tally swept up in sur­veil­lance for for­eign tar­gets, sev­eral Repub­li­can sources said. The Cal­i­for­nia law­maker’s de­ci­sion means Rep. Michael K. Con­away, the Texas Repub­li­can who once chaired the House Ethics Com­mit­tee, will take the reins of the po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive probe.

“We wouldn’t be hav­ing this dis­cus­sion about in­ci­den­tal sur­veil­lance right

now if [Mr. Nunes] hadn’t done what he’d done,” said one source, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity dur­ing the hours af­ter Mr. Nunes bowed out Thurs­day.

It was a sober­ing as­sess­ment of a drama that be­gan March 20 when Mr. Nunes went be­hind the backs of fel­low com­mit­tee mem­bers from both par­ties to view raw in­tel­li­gence re­ports at the White House that he said showed Mr. Trump and his as­so­ciates had been swept up in U.S. sur­veil­lance of for­eign tar­gets, and that Ms. Rice asked to “un­mask” the redacted names of Trump cam­paign op­er­a­tives.

Although the House and Se­nate in­tel­li­gence pan­els have a tra­di­tion of bi­par­ti­san co­op­er­a­tion, Mr. Nunes served on Mr. Trump’s tran­si­tion team, and the rev­e­la­tions caused Democrats to ques­tion his im­par­tial­ity and call for his dis­missal from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

On Mon­day, re­ports ver­i­fied by The Times en­snared Ms. Rice, who has been ac­cused of play­ing a cen­tral role in the un­mask­ing op­er­a­tion dur­ing the fi­nal months of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, be­fore and af­ter Mr. Trump’s Novem­ber elec­toral vic­tory.

On Tuesday, she pub­licly de­nounced in­sin­u­a­tions that her ac­tions were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated or tied to any or­ga­nized scheme to com­pile dirt on the Trump cam­paign and its po­ten­tial ties to Rus­sia. But she also didn’t ex­plic­itly deny hav­ing re­quested that names be added to raw sur­veil­lance in­tel­li­gence re­lat­ing to Trump as­so­ciates, say­ing such re­quests were fre­quently made and of­ten nec­es­sary to un­der­stand the im­port of the raw in­tel­li­gence.

That ad­mis­sion fanned an in­creas­ingly heated de­bate across Washington over the ex­tent to which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s han­dling of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion should be­come the fo­cus of con­gres­sional probes of Rus­sian med­dling in last year’s elec­tion.

Gor­don Adams, a fel­low with the Stim­son Cen­ter think tank in Washington, said the de­bate is more a re­sult of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s un­prece­dented ob­ses­sion with at­tack­ing for­mer Obama of­fi­cials, par­tic­u­larly Ms. Rice.

“The Trump peo­ple are neu­ral­gic about the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Mr. Adams, who served in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion and has been in­volved in sev­eral pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tions. “They’re stuck on the briar patch with this, and they can’t pull their hands off it. They must en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion

On Thurs­day morn­ing, as a cold spring rain bat­tered Capi­tol Hill, the House Com­mit­tee on Ethics an­nounced it was ex­plor­ing al­le­ga­tions of “unau­tho­rized dis­clo­sures of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion” lev­eled against Mr. Nunes for his han­dling of the ma­te­rial he viewed at the White House.

“The com­mit­tee notes that the mere fact that it is in­ves­ti­gat­ing these al­le­ga­tions, and pub­licly dis­clos­ing its re­view, does not it­self in­di­cate that any vi­o­la­tion has oc­curred, or reflect any judg­ment on be­half of the com­mit­tee,” Reps. Su­san W. Brooks, In­di­ana Repub­li­can, and Theodore E. Deutch, Florida Demo­crat, said in a joint state­ment.

Mr. Nunes dis­missed the charges as “en­tirely false and po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated” and the work of “left-wing ac­tivist groups.” He did add, how­ever, that the com­mit­tee would be bet­ter off not hav­ing to deal with added dis­trac­tions. He then tem­po­rar­ily handed his du­ties to Mr. Con­away and GOP In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee mem­bers Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Thomas J. Rooney of Florida.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, said Mr. Nunes made the cor­rect move.

“I know this was not an easy de­ci­sion for the chair­man, with whom I have worked well for many years,” said Mr. Schiff, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat. “He did so in the best in­ter­ests of the com­mit­tee, and I re­spect that de­ci­sion.”

Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings, a rank­ing mem­ber of the House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form, also praised Mr. Nunes’ de­ci­sion. Last week Mr. Cum­mings sent a let­ter to White House Coun­sel Don­ald McGahn and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster re­quest­ing more de­tails about how Mr. Nunes en­tered the White House com­plex to ac­cess the clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion, which he then briefed Pres­i­dent Trump on be­fore dis­cussing it with fel­low com­mit­tee mem­bers.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi both said they hoped the in­ves­ti­ga­tion could now move for­ward, while a White House spokesman re­fused to take sides. “This is an in­ter­nal mat­ter for the House,” he said.

Writ­ing on the wall

Dis­trust among cur­rent and for­mer lead­ers of the wider U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity to­ward Mr. Nunes spi­raled since the un­mask­ing first sur­faced. Some grum­bled the writ­ing was on the wall for his de­par­ture once “the in­ves­ti­ga­tor be­came a big­ger story than the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Last Fri­day, the spy chief of the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, Michael V. Hay­den, said in an in­ter­view, “I can­not see how the House com­mit­tee can now con­duct an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that any­one will view as im­par­tial or de­serv­ing of their con­fi­dence.”

Crit­ics of Mr. Nunes also ze­roed in on the vary­ing ex­pla­na­tions of where and how he had viewed the doc­u­ments at the White House. They also ques­tioned his de­ci­sion not to share the ma­te­rial im­me­di­ately with fel­low com­mit­tee mem­bers.

Mr. Adams said, “Nunes’ be­hav­ior set in mo­tion ris­ing calls for an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the ap­point­ment of an in­de­pen­dent pros­e­cu­tor, and that has put pres­sure on Trump to get Nunes out of the way.”

Next steps

The House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee had a ma­jor coup at its first public hear­ing two weeks ago when its mem­bers prod­ded FBI Chief James B. Comey to ac­knowl­edge that the agency was ac­tu­ally in­ves­ti­gat­ing Mr. Trump’s Rus­sia ties.

Af­ter­wards, the com­mit­tee bogged down in in­tense par­ti­san bick­er­ing over the un­mask­ing con­tro­versy and the Rice al­le­ga­tions.

Mr. Con­away, 68, rep­re­sents one of the na­tion’s most Repub­li­can dis­tricts in mid­west­ern and west­ern Texas. It in­cludes the city of Mid­land — the town where both for­mer Pres­i­dents Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Ge­orge W. Bush live.

Mr. Con­away once worked with Ge­orge W. Bush as chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer for Bush Ex­plo­ration, which ex­tracted oil from Texas’ fa­bled re­source-rich Per­mian Basin. In ad­di­tion to his du­ties on the in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, Mr. Con­away is the deputy Repub­li­can whip, serves on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee and chairs the Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee. House mem­bers tend to view him as a quiet and re­spected leader.

The Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, how­ever, has been such a tense par­ti­san drama that Mr. Con­away has al­ready been bashed about in the court of public opin­ion. The in­ci­dent oc­curred dur­ing an awk­ward ex­change he had with Mr. Comey dur­ing the FBI chief’s public tes­ti­mony at last month’s hear­ing. Chal­leng­ing Mr. Comey’s ar­gu­ment the Krem­lin pre­ferred Mr. Trump over Hil­lary Clin­ton be­cause of a long­stand­ing grudge, Mr. Con­away made a foot­ball anal­ogy that Mr. Comey ripped apart.

By the end of Thurs­day, House mem­bers were on planes to re­turn to their dis­tricts for a two-week re­cess. For now they leave the House Rus­sian probe in their wake. “We’re go­ing to pro­ceed with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and fol­low ev­ery lead to its logical con­clu­sion,” Mr. Con­away said in a state­ment af­ter the drama.

Mean­while, the sep­a­rate Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee probe into Rus­sia’s al­leged role in the U.S. elec­tion con­tin­ues.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TRADE: Repub­li­cans sup­ported Devin Nunes’ de­ci­sion to re­cuse him­self from a probe of Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rep. Devin Nunes left his chair­man­ship of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee be­hind in light of hav­ing viewed raw in­tel­li­gence re­ports at the White House show­ing Pres­i­dent Trump and his as­so­ciates had been swept up in sur­veil­lance of for­eign tar­gets.

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