It’s been a whirlwind 24 hours for the House Intelligence Committee.
Monday was an inflection point in the accelerating dysfunction of the bipartisan committee’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, with the ranking Democrat asking the Republican chairman to step down over his seemingly cozy relationship with the Trump administration.
Chased down the Capitol hallway on Tuesday by a swarm of reporters, Nunes denied that his approach to the committee’s investigation has been questionable.
“Why that would be?” Nunes said when asked if he would recuse himself.
“Why would I not [continue to serve as chair]?” he asked again, later in the conversation.
At issue is Chair Devin Nunes’s (R-CA) newly disclosed meeting with a source on White House grounds the day before he publicly alleged that communications involving President Donald Trump and his transition team were “incidentally” collected by the intelligence community. Nunes was himself on the transition team’s executive committee, and he brought these surveillance claims to Trump before briefing his own colleagues, who have yet to see the reports from which those claims were drawn.
This stonewalling has Democrats asking how Nunes can credibly be tasked with looking into Trump campaign staffers’ potential ties to Russian officials.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took to the Senate floor to ask House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to replace Nunes as chairman of the committee. By evening, there was a chorus calling for Nunes to simply recuse himself from the committee’s Russia probe, until it was ultimately joined by the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).
“I believe the public cannot have the necessary confidence that matters involving the President’s campaign or transition team can be objectively investigated or overseen by the Chairman,” Schiff said in a statement, saying he did not make the recommendation “lightly.”
Russia hawks on the other side of the aisle, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), were asking pointed questions about Nunes’ “objectivity” by Tuesday morning, though they still stopped short of asking him to step aside.
Then came fresh news that Nunes had ordered major scheduling changes in the committee’s work that are favorable to the Trump administration.
Days after unilaterally deciding to cancel a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday, at which former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan were scheduled to testify, Nunes canceled all of the committee hearings planned for this week.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), a committee member, said she only learned about the abrupt change of plans from media reports.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the White House tried to block Yates from testifying to Congress, citing presidential communication privilege (the White House denied that report). Yates had warned the Trump administration that ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the transition.
The tide of stories raising questions about Nunes’ motivation have not swayed him to step aside or influenced Ryan, the only person who could decide to replace Nunes as chairman.
“Speaker Ryan has full confidence that Chairman Nunes is conducting a thorough, fair, and credible investigation,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong told TPM in a statement.
If Ryan ultimately does decide that Nunes has become a distraction on this issue, he’s unlikely to do more than ask the chairman to recuse himself from investigations involving Russia and the Trump transition team, as Schiff requested.
Worth Hester, a specialist in congressional personnel at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, told TPM that Ryan likely would then appoint one of the senior Republican members on the committee, such as Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) or Peter King (R-NY), to lead the investigation.
“Those people are already serving on the committee and know the issues,” Hester said in a phone interview.
Asked if a committee has ever disintegrated to the point where the ranking member has asked the chair to recuse himself, Hester laughed.
“In my 28 years of doing this, this is an incredibly odd situation,” he said.
“Can’t think of a time in modern history where such a thing could possibly have happened,” he added in a follow-up email. “Oversight/investigative issues aren’t pursued with the same vigor, if at all, when the party of the President is the majority party in the House (or Senate). So, the opportunity for such a request to emerge just isn’t there.”