The embattled House intelligence committee chairman, Devin Nunes, has refused to recuse himself from the committee’s investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, despite calls from Democrats.
“Why would I?” asked Nunes, who has lost the confidence of the Democrats on the intelligence committee after a series of allegations that they consider a cover-up for the White House. “It’s the same thing as always around this place: a lot of politics, people get heated, but I’m not going to involve myself with that.”
The speaker of the House gave Nunes his full confidence on Tuesday. Asked at a press conference whether he should step down, Paul Ryan, the most senior Republican in Congress, responded simply: “No.”
With the Republicans united in defense of the inquiry, chances are diminishing for its work to be accepted as definitive. The Republicans are also blocking the establishment of an independent commission into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Doubts over Nunes sharply escalated after the California Republican canceled a public hearing originally planned for Tuesday during which two senior intelligence officials appointed by Barack Obama, and the former acting attorney general Sally Yates, were scheduled to testify.
Yates, whom Trump fired after she refused to defend his travel ban in court, was reportedly told by the Trump administration that her testimony was subject to constraint. The Washington Post published letters from Yates’s attorney indicating the justice department informed her that “all information Ms Yates received or actions she took” while a senior department official represented “client confidences that she may not disclose absent written consent of the Department”.
The justice department’s client is the United States, not the president.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, disputed the story, calling it “entirely false”.
“The White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying and the Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her, and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible,” Spicer said.
In his press briefing, Spicer said the White House had no objection to Yates’s testimony and denied any coordination with Nunes to block it.
“I hope she testifies. I look forward to it,” Spicer said.
It was the latest controversy shadowing Nunes.
Last week, following a public hearing that undermined Trump’s evidence-free claim that Obama put him under surveillance, Nunes said he was “alarmed” to learn of documents indicating Trump allies had their communications incidentally collected as part of “lawful” surveillance. He did not disclose until Monday that he received those documents not in the committee’s secured workspaces for viewing classified material, but at the White House complex.
None of this was shared with the committee, though Nunes informed the White House and the press first.
While Nunes has not disclosed his source, much speculation has centered on Michael Ellis, a former committee staffer who now works in the White House counsel’s office.
Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called on Nunes to recuse himself late on Monday. On Tuesday, Schiff lamented the cancellation of the open hearing and, without confirming that the administration had sought to scotch Yates’s testimony, urged Nunes to permit Yates to testify publicly.
Schiff also indicated that Yates would be asked to expand on the conversations with the Russian ambassador that prompted the dismissal of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
“We would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without further delay and that Ms Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly so that the public may understand, among other matters, when the president was informed that his national security adviser had misled the vice-president and through him, the country, and why the president waited as long as he did to fire Mr Flynn,” Schiff said.
Spicer declined to weigh in on the calls for Nunes’s recusal, calling it a matter for Ryan and the House of Representatives.
“He is running an investigation that we asked for,” Spicer said.