Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee spiked a motion Tuesday from Democrats to subpoena Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to testify publicly about Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere in U.S. elections.
They don’t want to re-live the headaches with the FBI’s James Comey and Peter Strzok on the witness panel, hearings that critics panned for degenerating into messy displays of partisan bickering and grandstanding.
Coats, one of the highest-ranking sources of information about Russia’s attempts to sow chaos in the U.S.’s democratic processes, is a witness best left interviewed behind closed doors, Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said Tuesday.
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“To put Dan Coats in the position that we put Jim Comey — of having to answer over 100 times, ‘I’d like to answer that question, but I cannot do it in this setting’ — I get the spectacle of it. There’s just no substance,” Gowdy said.
“I get the politics of it. What I don’t get is the duplicity. Lots and lots of things are done in confidence, particularly in the intelligence realm,” Gowdy said, noting that he interviewed “70-something” witnesses in 2017 about Russia’s attempts in 2016 to interfere in the election.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia denied that political motivations underlie his call for a hearing with Coats.
“Think about what the subpoena was — Dan Coats, come and tell us what you can in public about Russian interference and what we know and the nature of the threat,” Connolly said. “It’s not like he hasn’t talked in public about this. He has. So let’s have a hearing.”
Coats released a strong statement backing the intelligence community in the wake of President Donald Trump’s joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Helsinki, Finland, where Trump sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Coats later commended the president for clarifying that he believed U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia was responsible for extensive interference.
At a committee hearing on election security Tuesday morning, Connolly offered the motion to subpoena Coats to testify. Republicans blocked it with a 17-15 vote along party lines.
One of those Republicans who voted against the Democrats’ motion was Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a former CIA agent. Hurd earned praise over the weekend from many of his Democratic colleagues for a New York Times op-ed he wrote last week condemning Trump for his performance at the Helsinki summit.
On Tuesday, Democrats said Hurd’s words would be more powerful if he backed them up with substantive action in the committee.
“We need all of our Republican colleagues to conduct oversight — not just use strong words,” Oversight ranking member Elijah Cummings of Maryland said in a statement. “Support our request to subpoena the Trump Administration for documents it is withholding about Russian attacks. Support our request for the Director of National Intelligence to testify in public.”
Other Democrats were more blistering in their criticism of their Republican colleagues, saying the committee is neglecting its duty to conduct oversight over the executive branch.
“This used to be the Oversight Committee. This is the running away from oversight committee since Trump took office. We do zero,” Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch said.
“The Republican effort has been to rally around the president even when he is wrong, even when he puts down publicly our intelligence agencies, even when he disses us and sides with Putin,” Lynch said. “Are you kidding me? This is where we’re at now?”
Gowdy indicated he is unwilling to budge, citing the tense political divisions in the country over the multiple Russia investigations. Republicans will keep interviews with Coats behind closed doors for now.
“Things done in private are more constructive than things done in public, unfortunately, in the current political environment,” Gowdy said.