There was an odd sense of calm on Capitol Hill in mid-March while the House Intelligence Committee was questioning FBI Director James Comey. The congressmen seemed a bit flustered, hardly surprising for a group at the periphery of an ever-expanding tornado who have been charged with separating fact from fiction; the former federal prosecutor remained calm, the experience of testifying about a months-old, politically-charged investigation is not a new one. But it was strange to see an active counterintelligence probe casually discussed in a five-hour, publicly broadcast hearing that featured a set of tin-plated questions about Donald Trump’s wiretapping Twitterstorm, the infamous dossier revealed by Buzzfeed.com, and the number of White House aides involved.
In a story on Vox.com Zack Beauchamp described Director Comey’s revelation as “huge news,” then pointed out Rep. Trey Gowdy’s query about who had access to classified information as evidence that our current political system is “ill-prepared” for an open investigation of a sitting president. Beauchamp is right that politics have taken a prominent place in this story, but the South Carolina representative’s questions are not the first sighting. There was speculation all through last year’s campaign about what was behind this president’s affinity for the Russian strongman. Despite candidate Trump’s professed love for Julian Assange’s collective and the hacker king’s rumored links with Russian intelligence, there were no explicit accusations aimed at the New York billionaire until the third debate when Hillary Clinton labeled Trump a “puppet” and said he “encouraged espionage against our people.”
By December the CIA and FBI reached agreement — Russian hackers broke into a Democrat party email account and one affiliated with the Clinton campaign then hijacked thousands of emails, intent on helping the former Celebrity Apprentice host into office. The intelligence agencies remain divided over what effect the leaks had, but conjecture continued into January when Rep. John Lewis described the incoming administration as illegitimate because “the Russians participated in helping this man get elected.” That distinction is key because the hacker’s motives should not influence how their efforts are discussed in public, much less how the various investigations are conducted. Democrats appear to be letting contempt for President Trump guide them: consider Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from any Justice Department probe of the 2016 election. San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi rebranded the Alabama senator’s decision to avoid an obvious conflict of interest as an “admission that something was wrong.”
Then the president lit up Twitter with his allegation that Barack Obama had the “wires tapped” at Trump’s New York skyscraper. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Devin Nunes refused to defend Trump’s tweets. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee looking into possible Russian collusion with the former developer’s presidential campaign Nunes has since taken on a secondary role — defense attorney. In late March he visited the White House and briefed Donald Trump after talking to reporters. He told the president that members of his transition team were incidentally picked up during surveillance of foreign diplomats after the election; this is not unprecedented, and reportedly FISA warrants were issued for the unnamed nationals. The twist? The Visalia representative took information gleaned from “dozens” of classified reports to the president without informing his Democrat colleagues.
The Trump/Russia tale started looking like a grenade without a pin after word got out that Nunes met with a pair of White House insiders the day before who told him members of Trump’s transition team — which included Nunes — may have had their identities revealed in classified documents. If true it could present a real problem for this administration, or the one that preceded it. When an American citizen is picked up during routine surveillance of a diplomat, like the Russian ambassador, their identities are to remain confidential and can only be revealed when there is suspicion a crime, such as espionage, has been committed. So either an unknown Trump associate’s communications were inadvertently swept up and they are now suspected of collusion or somebody, presumably at the Justice department, was learning names and leaking transcripts.
By now the odds of a credible examination escaping from the House committee are dimming. Its chairman is inexorably linked with the president, suspected of a different kind of collusion. The House committee’s findings will be received about as well as OJ Simpson’s “not guilty” verdict was; Nunes will be accused of covering for the White House or sacrificing Trump to save himself. This leaves two possibilities for deliverance — a much-discussed “independent commission” which would take weeks, if not months, to set up and whose membership will be subject to speculation about its friendliness, or hostility, to Trump. The Senate Intelligence committee, along with the FBI, are the last men standing. Chairman Richard Burr and his Democrat counterpart have been saying all the right things and seem to believe that personal feelings and political loyalties should have no place in this probe. They may yet prove Beauchamp wrong.
photo/illustration courtesy of newscult.com