House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has joined those disputing President Trump’s assertion that federal law enforcement planted a spy inside his campaign, telling reporters Wednesday that he has seen “no evidence” to support such claims.
Ryan (R-Wis.) described as “accurate” an initial assessment offered last week by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who told Fox News that “the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do” in investigating information alleging certain Trump campaign advisers had suspicious ties to Russia.
“I think Chairman Gowdy’s initial assessment is accurate,” Ryan said, adding that “we have some more digging to do. We’re waiting for some more document requests. . . . We still have some unanswered questions.
“But I have seen no evidence to the contrary of the initial assessment that Chairman Gowdy has made,” Ryan continued. “But I want to make sure that we run every lead down and make sure we get final answers to these questions. I’ll leave it at that.”
Trump branded the controversy “Spygate” after one of his top allies in Congress, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), demanded a briefing last month from top FBI and Justice Department officials about a confidential source, Stefan A. Halper, who made contact with members of Trump’s campaign. Trump and Nunes have attacked both agencies over their handling of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
After much squabbling, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), also attended the briefing about Halper. The Gang of Eight — a group of lawmakers that includes the Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, as well as the top Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence committees — was given the same briefing later that afternoon. Ryan and Gowdy attended the first briefing with Nunes and Schiff.
Following Ryan’s comments Wednesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told CNN that he also endorses Gowdy’s take on the evidence.
“I think that Trey Gowdy’s description of the process was correct,” Burr said, according to CNN, though he left open the possibility that Trump may not be referring to Halper when he alleges his campaign was infiltrated.
Ryan was careful Wednesday not to disparage all of Nunes’s complaints with the Justice Department, a list of grievances that includes several unfulfilled demands for documents unrelated to the spying accusations. Democrats maintain Nunes is determined to undermine the law enforcement agencies and, by extension, the foundations of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the election’s outcome.
Ryan’s announcement appeared to surprise some fellow Republicans pushing for release of that information. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who has floated the possibility of impeaching Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s probe, declined to comment on Ryan’s take until after he had spoken directly with the speaker.
Ryan also shot a careful retort at Trump’s assertion this week that, as president, he is entitled to pardon himself should Mueller’s probe unearth evidence of crimes. At the same time, Trump said that he had done nothing wrong.
“I don’t know the technical answer to that question,” said Ryan, who is not a lawyer. “But I think obviously the answer is, he shouldn’t and no one is above the law.”
Republicans reacted harshly to Trump’s statements about his power to pardon himself, warning that such a move would be unwise and an abuse of power. They’ve suggested, too, that he seek better legal advice.
Democrats also have eyed the Trump legal team warily. On Tuesday, Democratic members of the Gang of Eight sent a letter to the top officials at the FBI and the Justice Department seeking assurances that neither the president nor any members of his staff or legal team had or would be briefed on the classified information pertaining to the FBI’s confidential informant, “outside of an appropriate judicial proceeding.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.