House intelligence chairman under pressure in Trump-Russia inquiry

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 28, 2017 10:06 AM

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two leading Republican senators joined Democrats on Tuesday in questioning the objectivity of the chairman of House of Representatives intelligence committee in its investigation of possible Russia ties to President Donald Trump's campaign.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham stopped short of calling on the chairman, Representative Devin Nunes, to recuse himself, as a growing number of Democrats have, but their pointed criticism added to the controversy surrounding Nunes, a close Trump ally.

The outcry over Nunes' actions since FBI Director James Comey confirmed the FBI was investigating possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign could add momentum to calls for an independent commission to investigate the matter.

"I think he put his objectivity in question, at the very least," Graham said on NBC's "Today" show.

Amid the rancor, the committee canceled one scheduled meeting this week, a congressional aide told Reuters.

Nunes told reporters on Tuesday morning the investigation was moving forward. Asked whether he would recuse himself, he said, "The investigation continues."

The specter of possible Russian influence on the presidential election in Trump's favor has cast a shadow over the Republican president, who took office on Jan. 20. His national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired last month after misrepresenting meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump campaign adviser, has recused himself from FBI probes involving Trump. This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russia's role in the election, said it wanted to question Trump's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, about meetings he held with the ambassador and a Russian banker in December.

On Monday, Democratic congressional leaders asked Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia probe, saying he was too close to the president to conduct an impartial investigation. Nunes, like Sessions, was a member of Trump's transition team.

Nunes acknowledged visiting the White House the night before he announced last Wednesday that he had information that some Trump associates may have been snared in incidental intelligence collection before Trump took office on Jan. 20.

Critics said the announcement was an effort to justify Trump's unfounded accusations on Twitter on March 4 that his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, had directed surveillance on Trump Tower during the campaign.

"If he's not willing to tell the Democrats and Republicans on the committee who he met with and what he was told, then I think he's lost his ability to lead," Graham said.

Nunes compromised his credibility by not sharing the new information, or its source, with committee colleagues, McCain said. He also expressed concern about Nunes' nighttime visit to the White House to receive the information.

"There needs to be a lot of explaining to do. I've been around for quite a while and I never heard of any such thing," McCain said on CBS' "This Morning."

Nunes apologized last week for holding a news conference and telling Trump about the surveillance information before informing other intelligence panel members.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, has criticized Nunes for not revealing the source of his information on Trump surveillance and especially his refusal to deny it was provided by the White House.

Democratic U.S. Representative Jackie Speier, also on the committee, said Nunes took a series of questionable actions after Comey's "explosive" announcement of an FBI investigation.

"I actually think that there is an effort underway to shut this committee down by the president," she said Tuesday on CNN.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on House Speaker Paul Ryan to force Nunes out.

Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in an email on Tuesday morning, "Speaker Ryan has full confidence that Chairman Nunes is conducting a thorough, fair, and credible investigation."

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)