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Top Democrat says White House distracting from Trump-Russia inquiry

Representative Adam Schiff
Representative Adam Schiff
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has accused the White House of “cloak and dagger” tactics after a day of deepening confusion around the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. Schiff said the Trump administration’s conduct led to more questions than answers and vowed that the committee would not be distracted from examining alleged links between Donald Trump’s associates and Moscow.
“I certainly think we need to get to the bottom of whether this was some stratagem by the White House,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill, referring to a New York Times report that two administration officials helped Republican House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes view classified material.
“Obviously that would be deeply concerning to us,” said Schiff. “I have to say I’m more than perplexed by how these materials have been put forward and the motivations behind it and I do think the White House has a lot of questions to answer, so we’re going to do our best to find out.”
The New York Times published a report online Friday, Mar. 31 at 1:16 p.m. naming two White House officials it said provided Nunes with documents showing Trump and his associates were caught up in surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. The paper, citing unnamed U.S. officials, identified the officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House counsel’s office.
According to the Times, Cohen-Watnick began reviewing “highly classified reports” about intercepted communications of foreign officials after Trump made his now-infamous claim on Twitter that he was “wiretapped” by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The White House daily briefing for media, due to start at 1:30 p.m., was delayed until 1:57 p.m. When press secretary Sean Spicer finally emerged, he announced that the top Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and House intelligence committees had been invited to the executive mansion to review new material relevant to their investigations.
“Our view is that the smart move was to make all the materials available to the chairman and the ranking member of the relevant committees,” Spicer told reporters.
“I think there’s a belief that the president has maintained that there was surveillance that occurred during the 2016 election that was improper,” Spicer said, referring to Trump’s evidence-free wiretap claim, “and that we want people to look into this and take the appropriate legal responsible steps to both understand it and then address it.”
But the press secretary declined to confirm whether this material was the same as that viewed by Nunes last week during a mysterious visit to the White House grounds, material Nunes then discussed in a press conference, leading to criticisms he could no longer be independent and was attempting to provide political cover for Trump.
Spicer also refused to discuss the content of the material or how it had come to light.
“We want to make sure that the people who are conducting the review have that information, have access to it,” the press secretary said. “That’s why we’ve invited them up to view it in a classified setting, in an appropriate setting. It’s not to be shared with people that don’t have the appropriate clearances.”
About an hour after Spicer left the podium, attention switched to Schiff, a congressman from California. Whereas Spicer claimed that the invitation was issued “within the past few hours”, Schiff said he received the letter “effectively simultaneous” with its announcement at the press briefing.
He was “more than ready” to view the materials, he told reporters, but found it “bewildering” and “unusual, irregular” that they would be presented in this way, and said he had written back to the White House asking if they were the same materials as those viewed by Nunes.
“Why all the cloak and dagger stuff?” he demanded. “That’s something we need to get to the bottom of.”
Asked about the invitation coming so close to the New York Times report, Schiff said: “The timing certainly looks fortuitous, and probably more than fortuitous,” while acknowledging he did not know if the Times article was accurate.
Nunes, who was a member of Trump’s transition team, has faced calls to recuse himself over the way he handled the allegations about surveillance of Trump’s team.
In mid-March Trump told Fox News: “Wiretap covers a lot of different things. I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”
Schiff acknowledged the House investigation was now “under a cloud”, adding, “They don’t need our chairman to deliver something to the president. The White House needs to answer if this was a case where they effectively tried to launder information through our committee.
The ranking Democrat promised their investigation was ongoing and had finalized its witness list. “We will not lose sight of the Russia investigation and we will keep focus on that.”
In the Senate on Thursday, the upper chamber’s intelligence committee held its first public hearing into Russian interference in the election. It featured none of the partisan rancor that has defined its counterpart in the House of Representatives, and heard from a witness that Trump’s willingness to embrace Russian disinformation was one of the reasons Russia’s interference in the 2016 election worked.
Jack Langer, a spokesman for Nunes, said: “As he’s stated many times, Chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source’s identity, and he will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources.”
FBI director James Comey told Congress he had seen no evidence to support Trump’s wiretapping claim. Obama has denied the accusation.