Donald Trump’s White House and a Republican congressman who is supposed to be investigating Russian interference in the US election conspired to divert attention from Moscow’s actions, a senior Democrat alleged on Sunday.
Adam Schiff accused Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, of colluding in an “attempt to distract” the public from concerns over potential links between Trump and Russian meddling.
Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, said on CNN’s State of the Union that Nunes and the White House had made an “effort to point the Congress in other directions, to basically say, ‘Don’t look at me, don’t look at Russia, there’s nothing to see here’.”
Nunes threw his investigation into chaos last month by announcing, without consulting committee members, that he had received evidence that members of Trump’s presidential campaign were swept up in electronic surveillance of foreigners by the Obama administration.
The congressman’s announcement gave a boost to efforts by Trump and his backers in the rightwing media to reframe Obama-era investigations of Russian interference – and possible collusion with Trump associates – as nothing more than politically motivated surveillance of the Republican presidential campaign.
Trump falsely claimed that Nunes’s findings supported his false allegation on 4 March that Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump’s campaign headquarters by US spies. Trump was under pressure to explain himself after Obama’s former director of national intelligence flatly denied the allegation.
It then emerged last week that two White House officials were actually involved in supplying Nunes with the evidence of “incidental” surveillance of Trump staff, suggesting intelligence materials may have been used for political purposes. Nunes viewed the documents during a mysterious late-night visit to the White House.
Schiff accused those involved of trying to “hide the White House hand” in making public the information.
Democrats accuse Nunes of working to protect his party’s president rather than concentrating on independent oversight of the White House. US intelligence officials have concluded the Russian interference was designed to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent.
Trump over the weekend continued to seize on Nunes’s original allegation that the identities of Americans caught up in the surveillance had been improperly “unmasked” by US officials, for internal use during the Obama presidency.
Every time we turn around, another shoe drops from this centipedeJohn McCain
Schiff has said, however, that Nunes privately admits the names of most Trump associates in the documents did, in fact, remain “masked” – and that Nunes merely thought he could piece together their identities by reading between the lines. Identities of Americans may, in any case, be disclosed internally if necessary.
This was just one of several examples of Nunes appearing to mislead the public or flatly contradicting himself since he made his explosive allegations on 22 March. Eli Lake, a columnist for Bloomberg, publicly accused Nunes of misleading him by claiming the source for his documents had been a US intelligence official and not a White House staffer.
The dispute between Nunes and Schiff has effectively halted the House committee’s investigation of the crisis. An investigation by the Senate intelligence committee is proceeding and the FBI is separately looking into the Russian interference and potential collusion with Trump officials.
Trump on Saturday again used Twitter to attack journalists for reporting on what he termed the “Fake Trump/Russia story” rather than the “Obama SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL” that he continues to claim exists.
However, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations made clear during an interview on Sunday that she sees concerns about Russian meddling in the election as legitimate, saying “all the facts need to come out” through a comprehensive investigative process.
“Certainly, I think Russia was involved in the election,” Nikki Haley told ABC’s This Week. “There’s no question about that.” The former governor of South Carolina added: “We don’t want any country involved in our elections, ever.”
Trump’s dismissive remarks were further challenged last week when Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security adviser, requested immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony to congressional investigators.
Flynn was forced to resign in February following revelations that he lied about his communications with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
The White House released documents on Saturday showing that Flynn initially failed to list payments from Russian companies, including the state-funded broadcaster RT, in his financial disclosure paperwork.
Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, on Sunday reiterated his view that the Russia saga must now be investigated by a special independent committee. Democrats and some other Republicans have made the same demand.
“Every time we turn around, another shoe drops from this centipede,” McCain told ABC’s This Week.
Nunes has said he will not step down from his chairmanship or recuse himself from the Russia investigation, despite calls to do so from Democrats and some of his Republican colleagues.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, dismissed the notion that what he called “yet another investigation” was needed to ensure non-partisan conclusions.
“It’s just not necessary based on what we know now,” said McConnell on Fox News Sunday.
Schiff said that when he was eventually shown the documents at the heart of Nunes’s allegation, a White House official told him the documents had been produced during the “ordinary course of business”.
This did not tally with the highly unusual series of actions by Nunes, according to the California Democrat.
“If these were produced either by or for the White House, then why all the subterfuge?” Schiff asked.