In front of cable news cameras and on Twitter, the tensions between Republicans and Democrats on the House intelligence committee’s Trump-Russia investigation are pointed and more than occasionally nasty.
But inside the Secure Compartmented Information Facility while members of the intel committee grill Obama administration alums and Trump allies, things can get even messier. Rep. Devin Nunes, who has ostensibly stepped back from the probe, still controls its subpoena power—and significant aspects of its agenda. Nunes’ staffers are tracking down leads. Just not those about Trump.
People familiar with the probe say it’s becoming increasingly clear where the committee’s Republican staffers are focusing their energy—and it’s not on the possible collusion between the Kremlin and Trump Tower.
Three knowledgeable sources told The Daily Beast that usually just three of the 13 Republican congressmen on the committee are regulars when witnesses are grilled behind closed doors. A few additional members sometimes attend parts of the probe’s interviews.
Rep. Trey Gowdy asks the most questions of any Republican there, according to a source in the room during the talks. He often asks the same things of every witness: whether he or she knows of any “collusion, cooperation, or conspiracy.” Rep. Tom Rooney is the only other Republican to ask a significant number of questions. Rep. Mike Conaway, the chair of the probe, is present but doesn’t ask as much.
“Just listening to those guys, it’s not like they’ve been prepared exquisitely by staff,” said the source who’s been in the room during questioning.
The questions tend to get more pointed and more direct when the witnesses are Obama administration alums. Republicans had particularly detailed questions for Samantha Power and Susan Rice, two former Obama administration officials who Republicans lambaste for allegedly unmasking, according to the source in the room.
Other Republicans sometimes make occasional appearances; Rep. Elise Stefanik has attended part of more than half of the interview sessions, per our source, and Reps. Frank LoBiondo, Brad Wenstrup, and Chris Stewart have all also made appearances. A spokesman for Rep. Peter King said he attends “virtually every interview,” though a source disputed that. On Tuesday, when former Trump digital guru Brad Parscale and longtime lawyer Michael Cohen appeared for back-to-back grilling sessions, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also attended.
This all points to a larger, fundamental tension: For all practical purposes, the House intel committee is running two investigations, not one.
There’s the work going on in the SCIF in the Capitol basement—hour after hour of interviews with key players, as well as efforts to gather documents from social media companies and emails from key White House players.
But simultaneously, the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes, appears to be freelancing, helming his own investigation into three passion projects: discrediting the Fusion GPS “pee tape” dossier, criticizing Obama administration officials for looking at the names of U.S. citizens in intelligence intercepts—a process known as “unmasking”—and digging in on allegations that the Russians bribed Hillary Clinton to sell off America’s uranium stores. Sources say he subpoenaed Fusion GPS’ bank without telling the committee’s minority members, which may violate committee rules. Fusion GPS has taken the intel committee to court to try to quash that subpoena.
All those projects have the effect of blocking and tackling for Trump, even after Nunes indicated in April that he would step back from the probe because of criticism that he was trying to run interference for the White House.
Speaking of subpoenas, only Nunes can issue them—even though he announced on April 6 that he would have Conaway, Rooney, and Gowdy “temporarily take charge” of the probe. Multiple sources confirmed to The Daily Beast that Nunes has not delegated his subpoena power to any of those three Republicans. One source said Conaway has been requesting subpoenas, and that Nunes has the final sign-off.
And sources said the real power behind the Team Nunes’ efforts lies with two staffers—namely, Kash Patel and Doug Presley, the duo who went to London in July, in hopes of meeting with the author of the “pee tape” dossier. (On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that research was funded in part by Hillary Clinton’s campaign.)
The staffers’ appearance at the lawyer’s office caused a commotion. At the time, Sens. Mark Warner and Richard Burr—who are running the Senate intelligence committee’s Trump/Russia probe—were negotiating with the lawyer to try to set up an interview. Patel and Presley’s surprise appearance made his lawyer extremely skittish, according to a source familiar.
That source described Patel as “Nunes’ Torquemada” and said he is the driving force behind Nunes’ investigative efforts.
The source also told The Daily Beast that Conaway, whom Nunes delegated to run the probe, only found about the Nunes staffers’ London expedition when Rep. Adam Schiff—Nunes’ Democratic counterpart on the committee—called Conaway to express consternation and incredulity about their journey.
Spokespersons for Conaway and Schiff did comment on that. Earlier on Tuesday, Schiff released a statement saying Nunes’ efforts—especially his latest, to dig in on the uranium situation—were “designed to distract attention” from the committee’s real work.
That is not the only marginal issue Nunes has moved to center stage. Nunes is also devoting committee resources to investigating Obama administration officials’ alleged “unmasking” of Trump-affiliated names, even though there is no evidence that any of those officials improperly or illegally disclosed those names.
“Sideshows like unmasking keep coming up, and no one has found any wrongdoing,” said one aide to a committee member.
While many Democrats on the committee have dismissed Nunes as unserious, his efforts are positioned to have a real effect on members’ ability to do effective oversight of the sprawling intelligence community. One aide to a committee member wondered aloud to The Daily Beast whether it will ever return to its traditional cooperative productivity.
It is likely, as The New York Times first reported and The Daily Beast can corroborate, that the two partisan factions on the committee will issue their separate reports at the conclusion of the Russia probe. The lack of a consensus report, both sides expect, ensure the Russia collusion questions remain open. Some Democrats believe the Republicans and the White House can live with any outcome short of affirming collusion, even though Trump would prefer outright exoneration.
Even as the probe enters what may be a terminal phase, Nunes’ focus is on Russia-related matters—albeit ones that he thinks impact Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Joined by fellow Republicans Ron DeSantis—who isn’t a member of the House intelligence committee—and King, Nunes announced a new Russia-focused probe, this one about an Obama-era uranium deal. King specifically said the investigation, a joint endeavor of the intelligence committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is “totally separate from the election issue.” In short, it’s not about Trump.
The news will surely delight the president—and only fuel the acrimony inside the House.