Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, says he’s investigating the FBI and Justice Department. But at a committee meeting on Monday, he declined to give members details that were requested about the direction of that investigation, The Daily Beast has learned.
At a committee meeting on Monday evening, members voted unanimously to release a Democratic rebuttal to Nunes’ instantly-infamous memo, which alleged the FBI improperly sought authorization to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser. But while the vote was unanimous, the committee hearing was tense, according to multiple sources familiar with the proceedings.
Members on the committee wanted Nunes to provide additional detail on his efforts to investigate the DOJ and FBI—an inquiry Nunes first confirmed to Democrats last week, as his justification for denying Bureau and Justice officials a chance to detail their objections to the release of his memo. Nunes, according to sources familiar with the matter, declined to share details of that investigation with members.
That might seem like a small, passive-aggressive moment in yet another of Capitol Hill’s endless partisan squabbles. In reality, it’s much more. Nunes and his White House allies already have put enormous pressure on the FBI’s leadership. A deputy FBI director named in the document has stepped down, and the Justice Department official overseeing the Russia probe—Rod Rosenstein, lifelong Republican—is facing increasing criticism fellow Republicans. Three quarters of Trump voters now say the FBI is biased against the president, according to a recent poll.
Nunes’ next steps could go even further to undermine public faith in the various probes into the Trump-Russia nexus.
And what makes the situation particularly unusual is that the committee’s rules require its chairman to consult with the top member of the other party when starting a probe. Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, told reporters last week that Nunes did not consult with him before starting his new investigation.
It’s the latest example of a jagged divide between the committee’s Republicans and Democrats. Those tensions came into relief over the previous few weeks, when Republicans pushed to release the controversial memo Nunes’ staff wrote. The document claimed that senior officials at the FBI and Justice Department misled a secret surveillance court about the political provenance of ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier when asking a judge to permit surveillance on Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
House Republicans, who led a weeks-long social media campaign to #ReleaseTheMemo, said it revealed corruption of the worst kind; Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, tweeted that the memo’s allegations were “worse than Watergate.”
President Donald Trump declassified that memo last week. And several errors in its text quickly became evident, including one of its primary assertions. The document claimed that DOJ attorneys never told the court that political partisans funded some of the material they referenced in their application to surveil former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page. In the days since the memo’s release, however, Nunes and Rep. Trey Gowdy ,who supervised the its production, both conceded that the application included a footnote saying partisans were involved in funding some of its material.
On Trump-favorite TV show Fox and Friends, Nunes pivoted Monday to say that “a footnote saying something may be political is a far cry from letting the American people know that the Democrats and the Hillary campaign paid for dirt that the FBI then used to get a warrant on an American citizen to spy on another campaign.”
In other words: Nunes went from claiming that the FBI misled the court, to saying the Bureau had notified the judges—just not in big enough type.
Though the narrative spun in memo suggests that Steele’s information was the most important element of the Page surveillance, it doesn’t actually go that far. Instead, Nunes’ memo calls the Steele dossier an “essential part” of the surveillance application on Page, all without clarifying how. (Court filings, however, show the FBI knew Page was in contact with Russian spies as far back as 2013.) The furthest the memo goes in establishing the dossier’s centrality to the Page surveillance is a citation to outgoing FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe claiming “no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information,” but sources familiar with McCabe’s testimony told The Daily Beast on Friday that the memo mischaracterizes McCabe, who didn’t make that claim.
Nor was surveillance on Page the genesis of the FBI Russia probe that special counsel Robert Mueller inherited. On its final page, Nunes’ memo concedes a core premise: Information concerning “fellow Trump advisor George Papadopoulos… triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016.”
On Fox & Friends, Nunes downplayed what his own memo described. “As far as we can tell,” adviser Papadopoulos “never even had met with the president,” Nunes said. That’s incorrect: Trump himself tweeted a photo of himself at a meeting with a visible Papadopoulos. (“He’s an oil and energy consultant, excellent guy,” Trump told the Washington Post in 2016 about Papadopoulos.) Papadopoulos is now cooperating with Mueller’s team.
The rhetoric from Trump and his allies has not reflected any of this. Trump claimed Nunes’ memo vindicates him in the Russia probe – despite Republican members of the intelligence committee backpedaling that the Nunes memo “is not a rebuke of Bob Mueller’s investigation,” as former CIA officer and committee member Rep. Will Hurd said at a Monday forum. Nunes instead told Sean Hannity – who had earlier said the memo would make Watergate look like “stealing a Snickers bar from a drugstore” – that the “bigger problem, challenge here, is that the mainstream media is totally uninterested in this. Can you imagine if the shoe was on the other foot?”
Nunes also asserted that the “clear link to Russia” was Hillary Clinton, not Trump.
“It seems the counterintelligence investigation should have been opened up on the Hillary campaign when they got ahold of the dossier,” he told Hannity on Monday night.
After Monday’s committee vote to release a Democratic rebuttal to Nunes’ memo—which Trump must decide to release by Friday—Schiff, the senior Democrat on the panel, dismissed Nunes’ additional efforts at looking beyond Trump-Russia questions.
“We hope these phases of distraction will come to an end and once again the committee will focus on what the Russians did to interfere in our election,” Schiff said.
The controversy surrounding the memo has not deterred Nunes’ investigative efforts, and has exacerbated the partisan acrimony among committee members. Schiff called for Nunes to step down as chairman, while Speaker Paul Ryan has backed his efforts.