House Democratic leaders are trying to keep the espionage scandal surrounding Intelligence Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell under tight control. But it's going to be an uphill battle. Republicans are pushing harder and harder to learn more about Swalwell's relationship with Chinese spy Christine Fang. And the Democrats' strongest ally -- The New York Times, which has averted its eyes and so far refused to publish even one word about the matter -- can't hold out forever.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is demanding the FBI brief all members of the Intelligence Committee on what the bureau knows about the relationship between Swalwell and Fang. That relationship began sometime after Fang arrived in the U.S. in 2011, before Swalwell was elected to Congress, and continued through 2015, by which time Swalwell had won election to the House, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi picked him for a coveted spot on the Intelligence Committee.
U.S. authorities had Fang under surveillance, and apparently picked up information about her having some sort of personal relationship with a member of Congress -- Swalwell. In 2015, the FBI met with Swalwell -- again, a member of the Intelligence Committee -- to inform him that Fang was a spy. Swalwell says he immediately cut off all contact with Fang, who quickly left the U.S. in mid-2015.
In the next year, 2016, Swalwell started accusing the Trump campaign of collusion with Russia. He proposed a 9/11-style commission to investigate the alleged influence of Russian spy agencies with then-candidate Donald Trump and top members of his campaign. No one in the public knew it at the time, but Swalwell had just recently had some sort of involvement with a spy himself -- one the FBI had actually warned him about. As 2016 and 2017 went on, Swalwell became one of the leading voices attacking President Trump and his Republican defenders on the debunked Russia issue.
Now, Republicans look back on those days and are amazed that Swalwell would play the role of attack dog when he himself had been in close contact with a foreign spy.
"Democrats spent four years accusing Republicans of cozying up to foreign spies when the Democrats themselves were doing that," said Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, in a statement. "Now my Republican colleagues are asking me if there are Democrat pee tapes and if they're being blackmailed with naked pictures of their party leaders. Maybe all the Democrats' accusations stem from what's really happening to them."
There's a lot of history in that statement. The "pee tape" remark is a reference to the Steele dossier, which, among other false allegations, spread the story that private citizen Donald Trump had watched as prostitutes performed a kinky sex act in a Moscow hotel room in 2013 as Russian intelligence services filmed the entire episode.
Swalwell was enormously interested in, perhaps obsessed with, the "pee tape." In November 2017, when the Intelligence Committee interviewed Keith Schiller, a bodyguard who accompanied Trump to Moscow, Swalwell asked question after question after question about the hotel room story. He never got anywhere, because there was no story to tell.
For the GOP, the important thing right now is to learn exactly what the FBI knows about the case. Last week, McCarthy received an FBI briefing on the matter -- the FBI had actually canceled the briefing twice before finally consenting. But the briefing was just for McCarthy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who were the only two members in the room. The information was classified, and both are forbidden from discussing what was said, which helps Pelosi keep a lid on the matter. But McCarthy made no secret of his belief that the Swalwell case is a very big deal.
"One thing that was fundamentally answered -- he should not be on Intel," McCarthy said after the briefing. In a later interview with Fox News' Martha MacCallum, McCarthy said, "I can't tell you about what [was in the briefing], but I can tell you this. What I learned today, and anyone who was in that room with me would never allow Swalwell to be on the Intel Committee, or to continue to be on it." If any leaders knew about the Swalwell information earlier, McCarthy said, "he should not be serving." That was a direct shot at Pelosi, who had picked the ambitious young congressman for the committee.
The next step for Republicans is to get the FBI to brief all the members of the Intelligence Committee. If more members, including members of Pelosi's party, learn the facts of the case, there will be increasing pressure on Pelosi to do something about it. McCarthy, said one Hill Republican, "thinks both Republicans and Democrats would agree that the information contained in the briefing would lead folks to conclude Swalwell should not be on the committee."
It's unclear when that FBI briefing will occur. Perhaps Pelosi will try to block it. Perhaps she can delay things for a while. But with a diminished majority next year, the speaker will have other fights to fight. At some point, the Eric Swalwell story will come out.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.