The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee issued subpoenas Wednesday for documents related to his allegations that Trump transition team members’ identities were improperly unveiled in intelligence reports, inspiring Democrats to accuse him of trying to distract from their accelerating probe into Trump associates’ alleged Kremlin ties.
According to a senior GOP House aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the subpoenas from committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) were issued on the same day as the panel’s Russia probe leaders announced that they had filed the committee’s first subpoenas for documents, records and testimony from Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and two of their businesses.
“I think they’re part of the White House desire to shift attention away from the Russia probe and on to the issue of unmasking,” the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), said on MSNBC on Thursday, stressing that Nunes issued the agency subpoenas “unilaterally” and without consultation or buy-in from panel Democrats. “But Mr. Conaway and I are determined not to lose our focus on the Russian investigation, and so we plod on, keeping our eyes on what has to be done, and unwilling to let this other stuff distract us,” Schiff added, referring to Rep. Michael K. Conaway (R-Tex.), who is leading the Russia investigation after Nunes offered to recuse himself from it.
Schiff also suggested that in issuing the subpoenas, Nunes was in “violation” of a promise to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Republicans pushed back against that assertion, arguing that Nunes never fully recused himself from the Russia investigation. His subpoenas address an issue that “is much broader than the question of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election,” the senior GOP House aide said.
Nunes’s subpoenas focus on the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency — the same three agencies he and Schiff contacted in March to ask for an accounting of which U.S. residents’ identities normally obfuscated in foreign surveillance reports had been disclosed, and why. They sent the letter after reports revealed that Flynn’s undisclosed contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were established after he appeared — and was then identified, or “unmasked” — during surveillance of Russian officials.
Nunes later alleged that Trump transition team members’ identities may have been improperly disclosed after appearing on other intelligence reports of foreign surveillance he had been made aware of during a visit to White House grounds, though he stressed at the time that those intelligence reports were not related to Russia.
But Democrats and outside watchdog groups accused him of collaborating with the White House to use the issue of “unmasking” as a way to steer the committee’s focus away from its probe of alleged ties between the Trump team and Kremlin officials, eventually inspiring the House Ethics Committee to take up the issue. Under fire, Nunes announced in early April that he would hand over the leadership of the panel’s Russia probe to Conaway, with assistance from Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) — though he did not recuse himself from the chairmanship.
The latest subpoenas have resurrected Democrats’ anger, who are charging Nunes with trying to distract the committee from its Russia probe once again, just as it was kicking into high gear.
But GOP leaders supported Nunes’s move.
“While Mr. 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 spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
Nunes’s office declined to comment Thursday, pointing inquiries to a tweet Nunes wrote Thursday afternoon.
“Seeing a lot of fake news from media elites and others who have no interest in violations of Americans’ civil liberties via unmaskings,” he wrote.