Trump’s Russian Headaches Continue With Congressional Allies Under Fire

Allegations that the White House may have squelched testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates ratchet up pressure on Rep. Devin Nunes.


On a day when the House Intelligence Committee was supposed to be questioning former Obama administration officials about Russian interference in the 2016 election, partisan warfare instead consumed the panel and intensified doubts about its ability to investigate the Kremlin campaign.

Many congressional Democrats are now questioning whether chairman Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) is capable of leading a credible investigation, amid questions about whether the California Republican may be running political interference on behalf of the White House. Nunes acknowledged Monday that he met with a “source” on the White House grounds just before announcing that associates of President Donald Trump had been caught up in U.S. surveillance. On Friday, he abruptly cancelled a planned hearing featuring former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

Now there are allegations that the White House may be running its own political interference to keep Yates from talking. She briefly served a key role in the affair now being examined by the FBI and investigators in Congress, and informed the White House in January that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and was a blackmail risk.

According to a series of letters published by the Washington Post on Tuesday, the White House could be construed as having attempted to prevent Yates from testifying at Monday’s hearing. In an exchange with Yates’s lawyer, Justice Department officials claimed that her work on behalf of the department may be protected by executive privilege, the broad legal protection against the disclosure of internal White House deliberations.  

On Friday, Yates’s attorney wrote to White House Counsel Don McGahn and asked him whether the White House would assert executive privilege to block her testimony. The same day, Nunes announced that he would cancel the scheduled hearing — making it unnecessary for the White House to assert executive privilege at all.

According to the Post, Yates had informed the Trump administration that her testimony would likely contradict the statements of some White House officials. Trump fired Yates during the first weeks of his administration when she refused to mount a defense of the president’s legally doomed travel ban targeting 7 Muslim nations.

“The White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying and the Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a Tuesday statement.

A spokesman for Nunes denied that the chairman had communicated with the White House about Yates’s testimony.

But Rep. Adam Schiff (R.-Calif.), the ranking member of the intelligence panel, who has increasingly questioned Nunes’ handling of the investigation, suggested that the White House might have sought to keep a lid on potentially embarrassing disclosures.

“Whether the White House’s desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege to keep her from providing the full truth on what happened contributed to the decision to cancel today’s hearing, we do not know,” he said in a statement.

Schiff urged that the hearing be rescheduled so the Yates could freely testify. So far, all the committee’s meetings for the week have been cancelled.

Alongside a slew of congressional Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.), Schiff has called on Nunes to recuse himself from the committee’s Russia investigation, but Nunes said he sees no reason to do so. And other Republicans are standing by the chairman.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wisc.), who has the power to dismiss Nunes from his chairmanship, said he did not need to recuse himself from the investigation.

In addition to the cancellation of Tuesday’s hearing, the scrutiny of Nunes centers on his decision last week to go public with information from what he has described as an intelligence community source describing incidental surveillance on Trump campaign operatives during the election.

This week, Nunes admitted that he had met with his source on the grounds of the White House in order to review the classified material, raising questions about whether the material was supplied to him in order to distract from a series of damaging revelations for the Trump administration.

While even other Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), have called for Nunes to disclose the identify of his source, Nunes has steadfastly refused.

Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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