Lawmakers who oversee intelligence are struggling with how to investigate reports that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had inappropriate contact with Russian officials and later misled the White House about it.
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Select Intelligence Committee offered dueling perspectives on a path forward on their panel’s probe; Senate Democrats coalesced around a plan with the Intelligence Committee taking the lead, something their GOP colleagues support; Senate Democrats also said the Judiciary Committee could play an investigatory role, and some lawmakers are still sending signals they want an independent commission in on the action.
“It just points to the need for us to have an independent, outside commission,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “Let’s take it away from Congress and [the] White House.”
The issue that has the House’s top two Intelligence lawmakers on the outs stems from how Flynn’s telephone call with Sergey Kislyak was intercepted — and who was listening.
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, who served on President Donald Trump’s transition team, is focusing on punishing those who leaked information about the Kislyak conversations.
When asked if he wanted to see a transcript of the call — something House Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff is seeking — the California Republican scoffed.
“We don’t look into Americans’ phone calls, period. And whoever did has a lot of explaining to do,” Nunes told reporters Tuesday. “I mean, can you imagine us wanting to have transcripts from Americans’ phone calls down [at] the House Intelligence Committee — or anywhere in Congress?”
Senate Democrats with experience in intelligence matters weren’t sure what to make of Nunes’ comments about the potential wiretapping of Flynn.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden called the remarks a “real head-scratcher.”
Schiff said he could not speak to whether the call was being monitored by the FBI or some other intelligence surveillance program.
The California Democrat said he wants a transcript or tape recording of the call but did not say from which federal agency he would make such a request.
“Our committee ought to receive any communications Flynn had with the Russian ambassador in whatever platform was used, whether it was by voice or text or any other means,” Schiff said.
Nunes said members have been investigating Russia in general “for a very long time” and that some have expressed since last year one of the biggest failures of the intelligence community since 9/11 was its “total failure to understand [Vladimir] Putin’s plans and intentions.”
“The [Obama] administration at the time said nothing about it; they downplayed the story and then in November they lose an election and by December they’re screaming to high heaven about all the problems the Russians were having,” Nunes said. “Well, welcome to the party.”
Flynn admitted in his resignation letter that he had “inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and other with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.”
Nunes was soft on whether he would invite Flynn to testify before the committee saying: “If he wants to — he can.”
“I mean we don’t even have the basic facts,” Nunes said. “We don’t even know who listened to the phone calls of an American citizen yet.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr was slightly more forceful about bringing in Flynn.
“That may be very appropriate,” the North Carolina Republican said. “We’ve got to know what questions to ask of somebody and we’re not at a point that we know enough right now to do that.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee may also get involved.
Feinstein cautioned that much of the Judiciary Committee’s work might also have to stay behind closed doors, assuming there’s an ongoing operation “to protect sources and methods.”
Senate Democrats made the announcement of the path forward following an caucus meeting called by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer following Tuesday night’s explosive report of repeated contact between Trump campaign and transition officials and Russian intelligence.
The New York Democrat said the Senate Intelligence Committee would take the lead in investigating ties between Trump’s “campaign, transition or administration and Russia.”
“They must have access to all intelligence officials, transcripts and documents that they need to answer critical questions, and they must be permitted to make their findings public to the maximum extent possible,” Schumer said.
GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said there was another reason to continue working through the existing committee structure instead of setting up a new committee.
“If you did this in any other way and you start right now, any other committee or any other group would be where we are in maybe six months,” Blunt said. “So, if you want to slow this down by six months, the way to do that is to turn it over now to somebody else.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said looking to the Intelligence Committee to conduct an investigation would be a fruitless endeavor because Nunes had previously indicated he saw no need for one after the election.
“To turn to the chairman who’s already said he didn’t want to do it is crazy,” Lofgren said.