House Trump-Russia Probe Kneecapped Before It Gets Started
This committee should be leading the investigation into the Kremlin-Trump Tower axis. Too bad it doesn’t have the money or the lawyers to really do the job right.
The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian intervention in the U.S. election suffers from two critical flaws that handicap its work. And that’s from one of the lawmakers leading the investigation.
The probe by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as it is formally known, is already under a microscope; the Republican chairman is under fire from Democratic colleagues for downplaying Russian ties to Team Trump before all (or even most) of the evidence is in. But there’s also a structural issue: HPSCI is a flawed vehicle for investigating this topic because it is starved for cash and its Senate counterpart won’t team up with it to prevent duplication.
The committee is struggling for money, and it would be even if it were not engaged in a complex investigation into Russian meddling, according to Rep. Adam Schiff, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee. Both he and the Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, have asked for more cash for the committee to do their job.
“The chair and I have asked for more resources for our committee,” Schiff said, in response to a Daily Beast question during a press conference Monday. “Frankly, though, those are resources we would need even in the absence of this investigation… when you consider the size of the agencies we oversee, and the level of our staff to begin with, it is very paltry by comparison.”
The House Intelligence Committee receives less funding than any other national security committee. From 2015 to 2016, the Armed Services Committee was allocated $14.2 million; the Foreign Relations Committee was allocated $14.9 million, and the Homeland Security Committee was allocated $14.4 million.
The House Intelligence Committee, which is charged with overseeing our nation’s spies, including the seventeen elements of the U.S. intelligence community, received just $9.2 million over the same two year period. To compare, the Select Committee on Benghazi, formed to investigate one specific terrorist attack, cost $7.8 million over two and a half years.
“[The committee is] dramatically underfunded under any circumstances, even more so given the daunting task of this investigation,” Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley, another member of the committee, told The Daily Beast. “We’re in the infancy of this, but the seeds of whether it succeeds or fails are being sown right now… It’s a tremendous burden, trying to accomplish this successfully.”
Of course, government entities asking for more money is a tale as old as time. But the new responsibility for carrying out a complicated inquiry into foreign intervention into an American presidential election is an unforeseen task the committee will now have to undertake.
“They’re under-resourced. It’s harder to do oversight on intelligence due to the secrecy involved,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former HPSCI staffer. “They’re not sufficiently resourced to do the kinds of investigations that are necessary, given that we’re talking about election interference by one of the major adversaries of this country. That is to say nothing of the lack of language skills—they’ll need a Russian language capability.”
The committee’s legal capacities have also gone down significantly. The House Intelligence Committee currently employs only five lawyers, compared to the 31 lawyers that work on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
During the waning years of the Bush administration, the intelligence committee had 12 lawyers.
“The number of lawyers on the committee have gone down dramatically since 2007-2009, when the Democrats were engaged in aggressive investigations against the Bush administration,” said Eoyang, who worked on the intelligence committee during this time period.
The committee could save costs if it teamed up with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting a similar investigation. As it stands, there will be two parallel investigations—with separate requests for individuals to testify, separate requests for documents, and separate requests for secret briefings.
Schiff said that he had broached the topic of joining forces with the Senate, but they have not welcomed this idea—he mused that the Senate may feel they have a more impartial and cooperative investigation than the House does.
“I would have to imagine one of the concerns—and I’m just speculating here—that the Senate may have is if they feel that their investigation is proceeding very much in a bipartisan fashion, and their concern may be that the House isn’t, they may have concerns about combining the two,” Schiff said.
And this is without accounting for the fact that the Republican chairman is formerly a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team. Trump’s team will be a subject of inquiry for the investigation.
There are already signs of tumult from within the committee. Schiff began a press conference Monday afternoon by saying that he hoped he and Republican chairman Devin Nunes would conduct press briefings together in the future, rather than separately (Nunes had announced a press briefing on short notice Monday morning).
“If this investigation is to be thorough and objective and to add value, it has to be done in a bipartisan fashion,” Schiff said.
The committee has not received any documents or heard any testimony from witnesses. In fact, they have just finished laying out the scope of the investigation. But Nunes has already batted down media reports about the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russian government.
“We still have not seen any evidence of anyone from the trump campaign or any other campaign for that matter that’s communicated with the Russian government,” Nunes told reporters Monday morning.
His preemptive declarations on this are stirring up questions on whether the committee’s inquiry will be comprehensive and fair—and fully investigate Team Trump’s ties to Russia, especially given Nunes’ work with the Trump transition team.
And while Schiff wants former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was dismissed for misleading the Vice President about his contacts with the Russian government, Nunes believes that Flynn was doing the U.S. a “huge favor” for calling the Russian ambassador the same day the Obama administration announced sanctions against Russia.
“Ordinarily, the House Intelligence Committee would be a fine venue for this investigation. It certainly has the expertise and capacity to look into [issues like this],” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer. “The concern is whether or not there is a will to conduct a comprehensive investigation. Given who the chairman is… the concern is that he isn’t interested in getting into the details of what transpired… but rather investigating leaks and pass-blocking for the White House.”