Donald Trump’s embattled former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has volunteered to be interviewed by the House inquiry into alleged connections between Trump and Russia, the similarly embattled head of that investigation announced on Friday.
Manafort’s extensive business dealings for Russian proxies in Ukraine have been the subject of substantial suspicion as a potential link between Trump and the Kremlin.
Manafort, who denies all wrongdoing, reached out through his attorneys to offer to speak to the House intelligence committee – whose Republican members showed in a Monday hearing their preference to shift focus from politically toxic allegations of ties between Trump and Russia to leaks the White House blames on the intelligence agencies.
It is yet undetermined if Manafort will appear in public. Aides said the committee was still negotiating whether Manafort would testify in any capacity. Later on Friday, CNN reported that Trump adviser Roger Stone and former campaign aide Carter Page had offered to testify.
Devin Nunes, the House intelligence chairman and member of the Trump transition team, is losing the confidence of Democratic members of his committee, even as he has softened dramatic allegations he made earlier in the week.
Nunes has for the time being canceled the next highly anticipated public committee hearing – something his Democratic counterpart immediately characterized as “a serious mistake” and suggested was a cover-up.
It was the latest flare-up in a week of visible acrimony that may end up crippling an investigation into the central political controversy of the Trump administration.
Nunes said on Friday he had seen documents from a source he would not specify that made him “very uncomfortable” over the prospect that the identities of unnamed Trump associates were “unmasked” in surveillance intercepts unrelated to Russia.
The House committee has yet to receive additional documentation from the National Security Agency (NSA), apparently concerning incidentally collected communications of Trump allies, that it expected by the end of this week.
Nunes sparked an outcry from Democrats on Wednesday when he announced his concern in a press conference and took it to the White House before informing the members of his committee. He later reportedly apologized to legislators. But his actions have pushed the inquiry near breaking point.
On Friday, in another press conference that raised as many questions as it answered, Nunes said of the concerning documentation: “I’m the only one who has seen the documents, as far as I know.”
It remained unclear what documentation Nunes was referring to that featured “additional unmasking” of Trump associates. The California Republican said it “appears like this was all legal surveillance, from what I can tell”, and that the surveillance did not refer to Russia. He tempered his earlier claim, seized upon by Trump, that US intelligence may have monitored Trump associates.
Nunes said he had additional questions he needed to put to the directors of the FBI and NSA, though he said the additional testimony he sought was “not on the basis of the documents” he said he had seen.
Still, the FBI director, James Comey, and the NSA director, Michael Rogers, have been asked to testify again, this time behind closed doors. Nunes has said he was “hopeful” the pair would return to the committee on Tuesday 28 March, the same day several Obama-era intelligence and justice department officials had been scheduled to testify publicly.
Delaying that hearing, Nunes said there was no point in those officials – the former director of national intelligence James Clapper, the ex-CIA director John Brennan and the ex-acting attorney general Sally Yates – testifying before Comey and Rogers returned.
Asked if Nunes was delaying the public hearing because the one on Monday had proved politically damaging to Trump – Comey and Rogers said there was no evidence supporting Trump’s claim that Obama placed him under surveillance – Nunes said: “No, it’s because of exactly what I said.”
Nunes nevertheless reiterated that “there was no wiretapping of Trump Tower”.
Nunes’ Democratic counterpart on the committee, Adam Schiff, implied that the cancellation of the public hearing smacked of a cover-up.
Schiff said Nunes’ trek to the White House before sharing information with the committee had been “wholly inappropriate” and jeopardized the integrity of the investigation.
Schiff, “read[ing] between the lines” in the absence of the documentation to which Nunes referred, suggested Nunes received “strong pushback” from the White House which was the origin of his “peculiar excursion” into allusions to improperly unmasked names.
“What other explanation can there be? There is none,” Schiff said at a hastily assembled press conference following the one held by Nunes.
Conspicuously, Schiff noted that Nunes “has been unwilling to rule out that the documents came from the White House or were shared with the White House”.
Yet Schiff remained unwilling to quit the inquiry, over what he said were fears that it would collapse without a credible replacement and thereby leave Trump-Russia questions unanswered by the Republican-controlled Congress.
Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign in August amid scrutiny of his business ties to pro-Russian figures in Ukraine. Trump’s son Eric said at the time Trump did not want to be “distracted” by questions dogging Manafort.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that in 2005 Manafort pitched a plan to a Russian oligarch that he claimed would benefit Putin’s image inside the US.
“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” Manafort reportedly wrote to Oleg Deripaska, a Putin ally with whom Manafort signed a $10m annual contract.
According to the AP, Manafort received money from Deripaska through at least 2009.
As Manafort’s business dealings have come under new scrutiny, the White House has publicly diminished Manafort’s relationship with Trump. The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, on Thursday called Manafort, who ran Trump’s campaign, “a gentleman who was employed by someone for five months”.
Schiff said he welcomed what he described as Manafort’s testimony and “would welcome that that testimony be in open session”.