The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday accused U.S. spy agencies of abusing their surveillance powers by gathering and sharing information about President Trump and his transition team, an unproven charge that was quickly embraced by the White House but threatened to derail the committee’s investigation of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, said he was alarmed after seeing intelligence reports disseminated after the Nov. 8 election that made references to U.S. citizens affiliated with Trump, and possibly the president-elect himself. He appeared to be referring to relatively routine cases of surveillance on foreign individuals in which they communicated with or mentioned Americans. …
But Nunes’s refusal to disclose how he had obtained the documents and his unusual handling of the material — which he withheld from other committee members even while rushing to present it to the White House — were interpreted by some as a sign that his discovery was engineered to help the White House.

This is truly unprecedented behavior for the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, especially since he never shared the information or even consulted with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff (Calif.). Considering the breach of comity, Schiff was remarkably restrained in a written statement. He took Nunes to task for this “profound irregularity.” He continued, “I have expressed my grave concerns with the Chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way.” Moreover, Schiff made clear that contrary to Nunes’s hysteria over unmasked individuals (Americans picked up in surveillance whose names were used), most of the names in the intercept were masked (e.g. “Person #1”), although Nunes could figure out by context who the individuals were.

Later in a news conference, Schiff said, “The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct, which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or if he’s going to act as a surrogate of the White House, because he cannot do both.” Schiff added, “Unfortunately, I think the actions of today throw great doubt into the ability of both the chairman and the committee to conduct the investigation the way it ought to be conducted.” In an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, Schiff dropped his own hints, saying the case of collusion was more than circumstantial. He did not elaborate.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, charged into the fray on Wednesday. He told reporters, “Representative Nunes’s statements would appear to be revealing classified information and that obviously would be a very serious concern.” The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), spoke for many when he said he wanted to find out “what the heck” was going on. On Wednesday evening, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declared, “No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Where does this leave us?

For starters, we need to know whether Nunes disclosed any classified materials by running to the cameras and by discussing the matter with anyone at the White House who might not have a sufficient security clearance. We also need to know whether his sharing information with the administration interfered with the investigation in any manner. If so, there are legal, ethical and political implications. At the very least, Nunes has demonstrated that he is not so much conducting an oversight process as running interference for the administration. His actions should be disqualifying.

President Barack Obama’s Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller seemed flabbergasted. “I can’t imagine what he was thinking — why entirely throw your own credibility away for something that doesn’t even give Trump what he needs?” He explained, “It gives [Trump] a Breitbart headline that he was vindicated, but no one else thinks that. It’s baffling.”

Democrats certainly would be entitled to declare the whole thing a charade and refuse to participate in Nunes’s compromised investigation. Let the Senate committee, which for now appears serious, do its work. In reality, Nunes only damaged his own credibility and that of his fellow Republicans who obsessed in FBI Director James B. Comey’s hearing over the leaks, not the potential that Trump colluded with a foreign adversary.

Evan McMullin, who had previously criticized Republicans’ conduct, put out his own statement on Wednesday. “Republican leaders have a choice: protect the Republic, or protect Donald Trump. Today, Chairman Nunes chose to cover for Trump in a politically motivated effort to distract attention from increasing revelations of Trump’s ties to the Kremlin,” he said. “He broke trust with fellow members of the House Intelligence Committee and with Americans depending on him to get the truth. We can no longer trust Nunes to put America’s best interests above those of Donald Trump.” McMullin renewed his call for a bipartisan select committee to investigate.

To outside observers, this seemed a clumsy and transparent attempt to divert attention from Comey’s devastating testimony earlier in the week; an Associated Press story confirming that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort “secretly worked for a Russian billionaire with a plan to ‘greatly benefit the Putin Government’ “; his team’s failure to properly vet former national security adviser Michael Flynn; Trump’s rotten poll numbers; and the president’s difficulty in finding enough House Republicans to support his signature issue — repealing and replacing Obamacare. Moreover, CNN dropped another bombshell Wednesday night: “The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.” One can see why the White House might be desperate to divert attention. Such an effort would be futile, of course. Evidence of collusion would put the Trump presidency on life support.

The scenery around Trump is peeling, and the performances are less convincing with each passing day. Trump’s own histrionics seem more desperate than ever. The audience (the electorate) no longer is willing to suspend disbelief. The question is whether Trump’s longtime fans will drift away and his run will be cut short.