In a lengthy, wide-ranging press conference Monday about the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election, the committee’s chair, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), repeatedly defended the Trump administration.
He declared that he has seen no evidence that aides to President Donald Trump were in contact with Russian officials before the election and dismissed calls for a special prosecutor to look into the matter. He also fiercely defended the White House’s attempts to get members of Congress to push back on reports about Trump aides’ alleged contacts with Russia, applauding the effort as a move for greater transparency.
The Intelligence Committee chair even went to bat for former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned following reports that he talked with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions before Trump’s inauguration.
Here are the five main takeaways from Nunes’ comments Monday:
The Intelligence Committee chair said that he has yet to see any evidence that Trump aides were in contact with Russian officials before the election, although he said the committee was looking for any evidence of Americans involved in political activity being in contact with Russian officials.
“The intelligence agencies have not provided me or the committee any information about those three Americans communicating with Russians,” Nunes told reporters. He was referring to the three associates of Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who reports alleged were in contact with Russian officials before the campaign.
Asked if the intelligence community told him that the evidence does not exist, Nunes said, “The way it sounds like to me is, is it’s been looked into and there’s no evidence of anything there.”
Nunes added that investigating Americans whose names appear in a news story would amount to a “witch hunt.”
Over the course of the presser, Nunes repeatedly defended efforts by the White House to have members of Congress, including Nunes, push back on a New York Times report alleging that Trump aides were in contact with Russian officials before the election. Nunes said there was nothing wrong with the coordination and said the reports about the White House asking members of Congress for back-up were “odd.”
“How is it compromised if I’m trying to be transparent with the press, and if the White House asks me to talk to a reporter, which by the way, it was one reporter,” Nunes said when asked if he was compromised in his investigation by contacting a reporter referred to him by the White House.
When a reporter noted that the White House asked him to knock down the story, Nunes replied, “No, that absolutely didn’t happen.”
Asked later if he felt pressure from the White House to push back on the reports about Trump aides’ alleged contacts with Russian officials, Nunes replied, “No, if anything it was the opposite.” He repeated that he was only put in touch with one reporter.
“All it was, was a White House communications person passing a number and a name of a reporter over, if I would talk to them following up on what I had already told all of you in the days before that,” he said. “So I’m not sure how you generate a press story out of that. But I can’t control what you guys write.”
Nunes later criticized reporters for being concerned about his coordination with the White House.
“So here you have the White House actually trying to communicate with many of you and trying to communicate with the Congress about what they’re doing, and now suddenly that’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.
Nunes reiterated on Monday that he’s more concerned about leaks of sensitive information to the press than alleged contact between Trump aides and Russian officials before the election.
“There’s been major crimes [sic] have been committed. And what I’m concerned about is this: no one is focusing on major leaks that have occurred here,” he said, citing the example of reports on Trump’s testy call with the Australian prime minister. “A government can’t function with massive leaks at the highest level of our President talking to foreign leaders. And so that I think is one of the focuses that you all should be concerned about. Because these are high level leaks.”
Later in the presser, when asked about calls for a special prosecutor to investigate the alleged contacts between Trump aides and Russia, Nunes said “the only serious crimes we have are leaks that have come out of our government to the press and others.”
Nunes said he believes there was nothing wrong with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump’s inauguration. He said Flynn was “doing what he was supposed to do, which is prepare the President-elect for office by getting as many leaders in front of him as possible.”
“General Flynn is an American war hero, one of the—put together one of the greatest military machines in our history, providing the intelligence to basically eliminate Al Qaeda from Iraq. And he was the national security adviser designee. He was taking multiple calls a day from ambassadors, from foreign leaders,” Nunes said, defending Flynn’s communication with Russia.
He added that he “would find that hard to believe” that Trump told Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador because Trump was “so busy.”
In defending Flynn, Nunes argued that the steps the Obama administration took to hit back at Russian intelligence officials for election hacking were not actually sanctions. Those steps included sanctioning individuals and entities associated with Russian intelligence and suspected of helping interfere with the U.S. election, in addition to expelling 35 Russian diplomats.
“When I apply common sense to this, those were not sanctions. Those were petty. They’re not taken seriously by anybody who knows this,” Nunes told reporters.
He then argued that Trump’s team was simply trying to work with Russia, just as previous administrations had done.
“I think if the discussions occurred around ensuring that there was no overreaction by the Russian government so that the new administration could do like all the other previous administrations who think they could work with Putin —which all three have been wrong, they cannot work with Putin—if that was what Gen. Flynn did, which is to try to keep the lines of communications open and to see, make sure the Russians didn’t overreact and maybe have some reciprocal attacks on our diplomats or other embassies around the world, that did us a big favor,” he said. “And we should be thanking him, not going after him.”
A reporter began to ask a follow-up question when Nunes cut the reporter off to diss the Logan Act, which bars private citizens from interfering in the U.S. government’s diplomatic efforts with other countries.
“You’re a Logan Act guy? Look, it’s ridiculous. The Logan Act is ridiculous, you guys all know that’s ridiculous,” Nunes said.
When asked if Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation relating to Trump aides’ alleged contacts with Russia, Nunes said it wasn’t necessary right now.
“We’re the legislative branch of government, we’re elected. The history of special prosecutors is mixed,” Nunes said when asked about calls for a special prosecutor. “At this point, what are we going to appoint a special prosecutor to do exactly? To chase stories of American citizens that end up in newspaper articles?”
“Look, if at some point we have serious crimes that have been committed, it would be something that we would consider,” Nunes added.