By Leandra Bernstein
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — One of the most bitter, partisan dramas in Washington has been unfolding over recent months in the House intelligence committee. The traditionally bipartisan select committee has gone "off the rails," according to one Republican member, who is now calling for the committee to end its investigation of Russian election meddling and possible collusion with U.S. persons.
As of March 1, the House investigation has been ongoing for one year. During that time, members on the committee have become increasingly unable to agree on the facts or even the direction of the investigation originally intended to look into Russian cyber activity and active measures surrounding the election and whether any political campaigns or U.S. persons were involved.
Last week, the committee heard testimony from Hope Hicks, former communications director and aide to President Donald Trump. After testifying to the committee behind behind closed doors for nearly nine hours, an individual familiar with the testimony told reporters that Hicks admitted to occasionally telling "white lies" on behalf of President Trump. Hicks resigned from her position at the White House the following day, reportedly for unrelated reasons.
After learning of the report, Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, one of the Republicans leading the investigation, denounced the committee's process, the leaks to the press and called for an end to the House Russia investigation.
"If we have reduced ourselves so far to get to the point now we are leaking stuff like this, rinky-dink things like Hope Hicks tells white lies for her boss, then we have gone completely off the rails," Rooney told CNN. "And this investigation needs to end."
Rooney repeated his position during an interview with The New York Times on Friday, saying that "the well has been poisoned so bad" that the committee should simply abandon its work.
"This is no longer an investigation about getting information. This is an investigation to see who can get to the media first to make the other side look bad," the congressman said. "I went on television and called for an end to House Russia investigation, not because I don’t think that there is still more information that we can gather from witnesses, but because the investigation has just completely gone off the rails politically."
While it is not clear who went to the press with Hope Hicks' "white lies" statement, Democratic ranking member Adam Schiff said the leak was "unfair." He did not deny that it came from the Democratic side.
The acting chairman of the Russia probe, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has given no indication that he will be wrapping up the investigation until its work is complete.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said the committee should continue its work and "get back to a nonpartisan approach to investigating" Russian interference in the U.S. election.
DIVIDING LINES EXACERBATED BY MEMOS
The most recent and perhaps deepest rift in the Russia investigation came last month, over the release of dueling Republican and Democratic committee memos describing the process by which the FBI was able to surveil former Trump campaign official, Carter Page.
The Republican memo, which President Trump said "completely vindicates" him from allegations of collusion, claimed that the Department of Justice submitted a political dossier to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to obtain a surveillance warrant. Republicans allege that the FISA court was not informed that the memo, written by former British spy Christopher Steele, had been commissioned by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton.
"They basically lied to the court," intelligence committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes told Sinclair Broadcast Group last month.
The Republican memo further asserts that the FISA Court would have never granted an order to surveil Carter Page were it not for the Steele dossier.
The Democratic memo, released three weeks after the GOP memo, disputed the claims of surveillance abuse and argued that the Steele dossier comprised only a "narrow" portion of the FISA application. The Democrats further contend that their Republican counterparts acted irresponsibly by releasing their memo over the objections of the FBI.
The intelligence committee, unable to agree on the facts of a portion of the investigation, is expected to release to separate findings at the conclusion of the investigation. The possibility of more dueling reports is yet another reason Rooney says the committee should abandon the exercise.
"We've already been told there's not going to be a bipartisan report," he said. "And if it's not going to be bipartisan, it might as well just end."
Asked if there was anything that could be done to put the investigation back on track, Rooney stated, "I don't think it can be rectified at this point."
REPUBLICANS SAY KEEP THE INVESTIGATION GOING
Other Republicans sympathized with Rooney over the toxic partisanship, but they have seen the investigation bear fruit.
Asked if the intelligence committee should end its Russia probe, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said, "No way."
The congressman, who serves on a congressional task force created to look into alleged FISA abuses and politicization at the Department of Justice, continued, "Each and every day we learn more and more that just raises questions for the American people. So I think we have got to get to the bottom of this."
Another member of the task force, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said he understands Rooney's frustration, but noted that "there are still a number of facts that the intelligence committee is in possession of that need to come to light."
Gaetz hopes the committee will release as much information as possible either in a final report or through additional memos.
Rep. Himes doubts further exploration of alleged FBI political bias and abuse of the FISA process will result in anything substantial but said Republicans can continue digging.
"Shining light on these made up allegations will only show them for what they are," Himes said, "which [are] made up allegations."
Senate Republicans and Democrats told Sinclair Broadcast Group that their colleagues on the other side of the Capitol have important work to complete and the intelligence investigation should not be stopped because of politics.
"It should be put back on the rails, not ended," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said of the House investigation.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who is leading a probe into the FBI's possible mishandling of the Clinton investigation, said both the House and Senate should finish their work and issue their reports as soon as possible.
"We need to conclude this," he said. "We have enormous challenges facing this nation and this is not helpful in terms of keeping our focus on those problems."
The top Democrat leading the Senate Russia investigation, Mark Warner of Virginia, stressed that regardless of the machinations on the House side, the Senate continues its "bipartisan investigation which is still focused on getting to the truth."
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Even if the Russia investigation flies "off the rails," Republicans on various committees have opened new lines of inquiry.
Rep. Nunes told Sinclair Broadcast Group on Tuesday that he is almost ready to wrap up the investigation into alleged FISA abuses, but will continue to pull the strings on the Steele dossier, which he believes shows "pure collusion" on the part of Democrats against Donald Trump.
"How did this end up where you have a political campaign able to feed information to the FBI to then go spy on the other campaign? That's what we have to get to the bottom of," Nunes said.
The congressman said he will be looking into former members of the Obama administration at the Department of Justice, the FBI and the State Department, to better understand whether the previous administration actively sought to undermine the Trump campaign.
Nunes said the State Department was involved in "some very interesting activity" and wants to know whether individuals at the State Department "were receiving info from the Clinton campaign...and then passing that on to other government agencies.
Nunes recently sent out a list of questions to 24 former Obama officials asking about communications with the Clinton campaign. A handful of those officials have already responded.
There is also a push from Republicans on the new task force to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a second special counsel to investigate the FBI.
Gaetz hopes that the work of the task force will feed into the work of a special counsel who can investigate "if there were any crimes committed in the abuse of the FISA system."
The task force has already interviewed former Deputy Attorney General Andrew McCabe and James Rybicki, the former chief of staff to James Comey. The lawmakers are working to get testimony from other players at the Department of Justice including FBI investigator Peter Strzok, and former associate deputy attorney general, Bruce Ohr.