Opinion writer

There’s a war breaking out in the House Intelligence Committee over the unfolding Russia scandal. And in a weird way, the evident desire of the chairman of that committee to protect President Trump may only be increasing Trump’s problems.

Today brought some new developments in the saga when Intel Committee Chair Devin Nunes and ranking Democrat Adam Schiff held dueling news conferences. Nunes took what appear to be new steps to shield the committee’s investigation — into Russian meddling and possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign — from public view, and Schiff issued some scalding criticism of Nunes that has really pushed hostilities to a higher level.

First, the background.

On Wednesday, Nunes made an extraordinary visit to the White House to brief the president on new information he said he’d received showing that intelligence agencies had, in the course of surveilling foreign targets, intercepted communications with some Trump associates. Stunningly, Nunes didn’t tell the other members of his committee about it, but instead rushed to inform the person who is himself, indirectly at least, the target of his committee’s investigation.

Trump had claimed, absurdly, that President Barack Obama tapped his phones, and after speaking to Trump, Nunes held a press conference to share his information, later saying that “I felt I had a duty and obligation to tell him because as you know he’s been taking a lot of heat in the news media,” as though helping Trump deal with bad news coverage was his responsibility. Trump then seized on Nunes’s information as quasi-vindication for his false claim. 

Which brings us to today’s developments. First, Nunes announced that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has agreed to testify before the committee. Given Manafort’s business relationships with pro-Russian strongmen and oligarchs, and the report that he was paid $10 million a year (apparently to advance the political interests of Vladimir Putin’s regime), that could be some interesting testimony indeed (though unfortunately, it will probably take place behind closed doors).

But that’s not all. Nunes also announced he was canceling a hearing scheduled for Monday that was to include three former Obama administration officials: director of national intelligence James Clapper, CIA director John Brennan, and Sally Yates (whom Trump fired as acting attorney general). Nunes said their public hearing was canceled so that the committee could have a closed hearing with FBI director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers, who have already testified in an open hearing.

But Schiff wasn’t having it. “We don’t welcome cutting off public access to information,” Schiff said at his own press conference. “I think that there must have been a very strong pushback from the White House about the nature of Monday’s hearing.” Nunes also did apologize to the rest of the committee for going behind their backs to brief the president, but Schiff said: “I’m deeply discouraged by this week’s events.”

It’s clear that this committee, which is ordinarily among the most nonpartisan of all congressional committees, is now at war with itself. We could see something resembling what happened with the House Oversight Committee during the Obama years: Darrell Issa and Elijah Cummings regularly shouting at each other in public; a lot of tense hearings and mutual distrust; and competing leaks to the media.

Ironically, however, Nunes’s buffoonery has only served to make an independent investigation of the Russia scandal more likely. By making it clear to everyone that he is completely unwilling to conduct a remotely objective investigation into Russian interference in the election, he has strengthened the argument for taking the matter out of partisan hands — something Schiff is also advocating.

That doesn’t mean it’s likely, though. The creation of an independent commission would require a vote of both houses of Congress and then the president’s signature, which is a long shot given the desire among Republicans to protect Trump. The only way it might happen is if public pressure builds to a point at which Republicans begin to see protecting the president as less important than washing their hands of the scandal and avoiding the charge of being in on a coverup — and the pressure on Trump is sufficient that he feels he has no choice but to approve it.

But nonetheless, it’s clear that there’s still a lot we’ll be learning about the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And there’s only so much that Devin Nunes can do to stop it.