Trump-Russia inquiry falters after chairman’s ‘midnight run’

Behaviour of former adviser to US president fuels doubts over credibility of investigation

The House intelligence committee investigation of the Trump campaign's alleged links with Moscow looks in danger of unravelling as a result of the unexplained behaviour of its chairman, Devin Nunes, a former Trump adviser.

Such behaviour reportedly includes an unexplained disappearance from an Uber ride with a staffer on Tuesday night, described by his Democratic counterpart as a “peculiar midnight run”.

The investigation subsequently appeared to stall, with Nunes calling off a critical hearing scheduled for Tuesday, March 28th, at a time when his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Adam Schiff, said he had seen more than circumstantial evidence of collusion between the Trump camp and Russia.

At an extraordinary committee hearing last Monday, FBI director James Comey confirmed for the first time that the bureau was investigating Trump associates for possible collusion with Moscow.


Evidence of collusion

Mr Comey refused to name any of the campaign aides under FBI scrutiny. Mr Schiff, the ranking Democrat, said he and Mr Nunes had been given a classified briefing that involved evidence of collusion that “isn’t purely circumstantial”.

Mr Schiff said he had persuaded Mr Nunes to put in a joint request to Comey to share that evidence with the rest of the committee but said he did not know how the FBI director would respond.

Mr Nunes, who served on US president Donald Trump's transition team, subsequently put off the second hearing, which would have heard from former intelligence chiefs and a former deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, who was fired by Mr Trump.

Mr Nunes said he wanted to postpone the hearing to give the committee more time to confer with Comey and the National Security Agency director, Michael Rogers. Mr Schiff, however, claimed the hearing had been cancelled to to "choke off public information" and avoid any more embarrassment to the White House.


Mr Nunes has been under scrutiny over the past week for other reasons. He is reported to have gone missing on Tuesday night, under mysterious circumstances.

US news and opinion website the Daily Beast reported that Mr Nunes received a message on his phone while travelling in a Uber car with a senior committee staffer in Washington, and then left the car abruptly without telling the staffer where he was going.

The next day he called a press conference, without telling his senior staff what he was going to say, and announced that he had seen “dozens” of intelligence reports that showed US intelligence agencies had “incidentally collected” material on members of the Trump transition team.

Such incidental collection happens when court-approved surveillance of an intelligence target picks up communications involving US persons who are not the formal target of the surveillance.

Mr Nunes did not share the intelligence material he claimed to have seen with Democratic members of his committee, and instead outraged them further by briefing Mr Trump. He said later: “I had a duty and obligation to tell him because, as you know, he’s taking a lot of heat in the news media.”

The president later said he felt “somewhat” vindicated in his repeated claims to have been the target of an Obama administration wiretap, even though those claims have been repudiated by Mr Comey, intelligence chiefs and senior Republicans who said there was no evidence for them.

Mr Schiff lambasted Nunes for failing to share the documents he said the committee chairman had gone to see in “this extraordinary and peculiar midnight run”.

Political cover

"You don't take information to the White House instead of your own committee if it purports to shed light on one of things we're investigating," Mr Schiff told the San Francisco Chronicle, suggesting that the whole incident was designed to provide political cover for Mr Trump's tweeted claims.

“It’s hard to have confidence if the chairman is going to be involved in that sort of conduct,” he said.

Mr Nunes would not say who had shown him the documents – only that they were “legally brought to me by sources who thought that we should know it”.

Mr Nunes’s Tuesday night foray to see possibly critical documents, his failure to share those documents with the committee, his decision to brief the president instead, and his abrupt cancellation of Tuesday’s hearing have all raised questions over whether the intelligence committee under his chairmanship can continue its inquiry into reported Russian intervention in the 2016 election with any credibility.

"The chairman has to make a decision over whether he is a surrogate for the president, as he was during the campaign and transition, or whether he's leading a bipartisan investigation," Mr Schiff told the Chronicle. "Because he can't do both.

“This week, unfortunately, he behaved like a surrogate and that is a real problem.”

The California Democrat, however, ruled out a boycott of the committee, arguing that would lead to the complete collapse of the investigation.

“If we were going to walk away and say the chairman is fatally compromised and we’re not going to participate, then none of this is going to get investigated by the House and that’s just not acceptable,” Mr Schiff said. “So we’re going to soldier on.”

A separate Senate investigation is due to hold its first open hearing on the Russian role in the election on Thursday, but no serving officials will appear.

Mr Schiff said Mr Nunes’s behaviour added weight to calls from Democrats and a few Republicans for a special bipartisan commission to be created to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump camp’s possible involvement in it.

– Guardian service