Nunes, Schiff -- Worthy Foes Who Lead House Russia Probe
Devin Nunes is a conservative Republican from the San Joaquin Valley who advised Donald Trump through his transition to the presidency. Adam Schiff is a Los Angeles Democrat who campaigned for Hillary Clinton and isn't shy in his criticisms of the man who defeated her.
Now the two California congressmen find themselves at the center of the political universe, leading a House probe into Russian meddling in American politics—an investigation that includes alleged links between Trump campaign associates and Russian operatives who may have wanted to alter the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election.
Other congressional committees are convening hearings, as well, but the House Intelligence Committee has garnered the most attention because it has summoned the nation’s top intelligence and security professionals to Capitol Hill for public testimony. Nunes, the committee’s chairman, and Schiff, the ranking Democratic member, are two of just eight lawmakers cleared for access to the most highly classified information.
Earlier this week, FBI Director James Comey told the House panel, for the first time publicly, that the bureau was investigating whether there was any coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign. Comey also testified he had “no information” to support the president’s accusations—made in the form of a spate of tweets—that Trump’s Manhattan offices had been bugged with the complicity of former President Obama. Next week, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates will appear in front of the committee on Capitol Hill.
With the Russia probes hovering over the Trump administration, the two California lawmakers have become fixtures on cable news and the Sunday shows. Their frequent joint press conferences in the corridor outside their committee's designated SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, often make news for both content and style. The two have no qualms about expressing disagreements with what they deduce from the same pot of information, but their joint appearances are a vestige of the kind of bipartisanship that has all but disappeared from Washington. And yet, Monday's hearing showed the partisan divide on the issue, with Republican members focused on plugging government leaks of sensitive information and Democrats interested in possible collusion.
The platform has increased the committee leaders' star power in Washington and perhaps beyond. And their mission presents a nuanced set of opportunities and challenges.
Nunes, who has served in Congress since 2003, has been sounding alarms about Russia since before Trump entered politics, and has expressed frustration that the former administration did not heed his committee's warnings. He sees the Russian-meddling investigation as a way to highlight the problem and explain to the American people the dangers posed by Vladimir Putin’s expansionist desires. Yet Nunes is also close with many key players in the new administration, having served on the transition team and offered his advice on important issues. And the president is creating some agony and distractions for Nunes' committee—such as the wiretapping allegations, which Nunes has dismissed as a canard.
Schiff is a Harvard-educated attorney who as the assistant U.S. attorney in 1990 prosecuted the case against Richard Miller, the first FBI agent indicted on espionage charges after entangling himself with a Soviet spy—a case that reads like a plotline of the hit spy series on FX, “The Americans.” (Schiff hasn't seen the show, but says his wife has been wanting to watch it with him. "Some of those shows feel too much like the day job," he told RealClearPolitics. "I feel like I get a lot of that from 9 to 5.")
The California Democrat came to Congress in 2001 and has emerged as one of his party's experts on national security and foreign policy issues. His perch on the Intelligence Committee gives him a coveted platform to make his party’s case against Trump, but the sensitive nature of his position presents the challenge of not coming across as overtly political.
"This is the most high profile issue we've had to handle, and one that has intense political consequences," Schiff told RCP in a brief interview. He and Nunes agree the public hearings play an important role of informing Americans about what's at stake with a foreign power meddling in U.S. elections and why they should care.
Congressional aides say the chairman and ranking member work well together. They have traveled together on congressional trips abroad as part of their committee work and spend countless hours working on sensitive information behind closed doors.
"It's OK for Mr. Schiff and I to have disagreements. He represents a district just like I do, and we're clearly from different political parties," Nunes said last week. "And at the end of the day, it's all on our interpretation of what people say or don't say, and it's the court of public opinion that ultimately has the say in all this." Nunes said he is confident the committee will ultimately put forward a bipartisan report for the public to read.
Both men point to the way in which their predecessors ran the committee as a model. Former Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan and former ranking Democrat C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland were known for reforming a committee that had grown intensely partisan into the reputably collegial state it is in today.
"Considering the deep partisanship that's there, I think Adam and Devin are being about as bipartisan as you can be," Republican Rep. Peter King told RCP, referring to the delicate nature of the Russia issue as it relates to the Trump campaign. "I give them both A's in the way it's being handled. Adam could certainly be taking cheap shots if he wanted ... but he laid out the Democratic case in a responsible way."
That's not to say Schiff hasn't been vocal in his criticism of Trump, as he tweeted Monday:
Today, the FBI and NSA confirmed that @POTUS accusations against Obama were baseless. Still White House persists. Credibility now below zero— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 21, 2017
Last weekend, Schiff was the guest of honor for a Palm Beach Democratic Party event in Florida, while the president visited his Mar-a-Lago club nearby.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that the White House had enlisted a team of intelligence community members and lawmakers to defend the administration in a story on the Russia issue, and that Nunes was among them.
Nunes developed an interest in intelligence and national security issues through his work in Congress, according to an aide. He was only 23 when he was elected to public office, serving as a community college trustee in California. He worked on his family's farm as a teenager, and two years before joining Congress, Nunes was appointed by President George W. Bush as a California director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to his website. He joined the Intelligence Committee in 2011 and became chairman in 2015.
King noted that the classified nature of much of the material the committee deals with and the limits to which Comey and other officials can go on public record makes for an added challenge, particularly as the FBI probes Trump’s world.
"The disadvantage of a counter-terrorism investigation is that they could go on for a long, long time," he said. "There are so many different leads you have to follow."
Nunes told Comey that the controversy has put a "big gray cloud" over “people who have very important work to do to lead this country." The chairman expressed concern about unnecessarily dragging White House officials through the mud. "I don't have any evidence that leads to anybody in the White House [being] under any type of investigation," Nunes told reporters. "I still believe there's no evidence that would justify anybody being under investigation at the White House. So this has to be cleared up quickly."
So far, Nunes says he has not seen any such evidence of collusion between Trump allies and Russians, a conclusion backed up by Clapper. Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who endorsed Hillary Clinton, also said last week that while there may be smoke, "there is no fire at all" regarding collusion.
But Schiff isn't quite there, arguing that while "direct" evidence has yet to emerge, the "circumstantial" evidence is powerful. Nunes allowed Schiff 15 minutes for his opening statement—which was seen as generous, and emblematic of their mutual respect—during which Schiff laid out his suspicions against the president in a lawyerly fashion, connecting the dots between Trump associates Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page, among others, and Russian interests. Such connections could be happenstance, he allowed. But "it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental," he said.
Schiff said that while the committee is still working on witness lists, he hasn't ruled out calling in Trump associates. In a Sunday appearance on “Meet the Press,” Schiff said Nunes "is going to have to be willing to use subpoena power, because there will be people we need to bring in before the committee who may not be willing witnesses."
The ranking member expects next week's hearing to focus less on the issues of coordination and criminality and more on the way in which Russians interfered in the election. The Republicans on the committee are interested in the leaks of classified information coming from inside the government regarding the Russian connections.
"There's been one crime that has been committed and that's the leaking of someone's name," Nunes told reporters. "Everything else, we are conducting oversight on."
During Monday's hearing, Rep. Trey Gowdy pressed Comey on whether former Obama administration officials, including Clapper, Brennan and Yates, would have access to the leaked information surrounding Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser.
But another takeaway from the hearing was the warning from Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers that the issue of Russian interference isn't going away. "They'll be back," Comey told the intelligence panel. "And they'll be back in 2020, they may be back in 2018, and one of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful, because they introduced chaos and division and discord and sewed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process."
All the more work for the committee.
"There has not been anyone tougher on Russia than the House Intelligence Committee, from Republicans and the Democrats, including Mr. Schiff," Nunes told reporters last week. "So this is a good thing in terms of us being able to highlight this issue."