House Russia probe plagued by unrest

The House intelligence committee’s Russia investigation appeared Friday to be veering back off the rails after a rocky week, punctuated by the re-emergence of House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes as a force in the probe.

A visibly angry House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday she has met with House Speaker Paul Ryan multiple times to complain about Nunes never fully stepping away from the Russia probe — despite the California Republican’s promise two months ago that he would step aside.

“The behavior of Nunes — whatever we’re calling him, ‘Chairman Recused, ‘Un-recused, ‘I didn’t mean recuse, when I said and gave you the impression of recused’ — whatever that loosey-goosey (definition) is — is beneath the dignity of being a chairman of the intelligence committee,” Pelosi said.

The anger behind the scenes was reignited when Nunes signed off on four subpoenas sent by House Russia investigators to former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen — and also issued three subpoenas on his own, seeking information from former Obama administration officials.

The old arguments that threatened to consume the House probe almost two months ago re-emerged immediately. But now, Democrats were openly blaming House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, for Nunes’ continued role.

“My dismay, my objection has been conveyed to the speaker on more than one occasion,” Pelosi, a California Democrat, said. “It all comes back to the speaker, it’s his appointment.”

A senior House Republican aide noted Friday that Nunes never promised to “recuse” himself — citing the legal definition of the word — and added that Nunes, who is still the chairman of the House intelligence committee, has a duty to investigate whether US residents had their names revealed in classified intelligence reports, an issue pushed hard by Trump in response to the Russia investigations.

“While (Texas Rep. Mike) Conaway leads the Russia investigation, Mr. Nunes remains the chairman of the intel committee and has the right and responsibility to conduct oversight of the intelligence community, especially as it relates to the potential misuse of intelligence agencies against Americans,” said AshLee Strong, a Ryan spokeswoman.

And Nunes, in a rare public comment about his role overseeing the House panel, blasted the media and critics Thursday.

“Seeing a lot of fake news from media elites and others who have no interest in violations of Americans’ civil liberties via unmaskings,” Nunes tweeted.

One Democrat on the committee said there is still confidence that Conaway can lead the Russia probe, but Democrats are on guard for possible “sabotage” from Nunes.

“I think the Republicans don’t want to slap their chairman in the face. The effort to try to work around him appears to be moving the committee forward,” said the Democrat, who asked not to be named. “If, in fact, it appears he’s trying to truly sabotage the investigation, then I think gloves will start coming off.”

It’s a surprising backslide for House investigators after they spent two months righting their ship — including agreeing to a “reset” immediately after Nunes first said he would step aside from leading the probe.

Democrats on the panel — who had been calling for Nunes’ recusal — have broadly praised Conaway’s leadership of the probe. And the panel held a pair of hearings — one with former FBI Director James Comey and another with former CIA Director John Brennan — that had been waylaid by fighting between the Democrats and Nunes.

But even as House investigators pushed forward, Democrats on the investigation grumbled in private that Nunes had never really stepped away from the probe. Nunes’ trip two weeks ago to review Russian intelligence at the CIA raised the ire of Democrats at the time.

And private worries that he refused to step away from signing off on subpoenas boiled over in public Wednesday.

Nunes’ decision to send out subpoenas re-opened old wounds and allegations that he was coordinating with the White House to undercut the House Russia investigation.

“We have very little insight into what the chairman is doing here. I think the only guidance we can get is that we hear coming out of the White House,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Senate probe has continued chugging on — Flynn agreed to provide documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, under the force of multiple subpoenas, and the panel is scheduled to interview Comey about his firing at a Thursday hearing.