Home Politics House Russia probe puts witness interviews on hold

House Russia probe puts witness interviews on hold

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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes tells reporters he will hold an open hearing on March 20 to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The embattled House investigation into Russia’s election meddling is once again beset by sniping and strategy disagreements, with Democrats now blocking key witness interviews, according to two sources familiar with the probe.

The House Intelligence Committee, which is exploring allegations of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign, was set to interview 10 witnesses this month. But the committee has put the interviews on hold after the panel’s top Democrat objected, the two sources said. A third source said the panel wasn’t yet ready to conduct the interviews, since some of the witnesses have not fully complied with the committee’s requests for documents.

The interviews would have included former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page and longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, who both say they’re eager to appear before the panel, along with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

The stalled interviews come amid another public spat between House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and ranking Democrat Adam Schiff of California.

Schiff on Thursday went on national television to blast Nunes for continuing to hold power over the investigation’s subpoenas, despite pledging nearly two months ago to step aside from probe.

Nunes responded on Twitter, writing: “Seeing a lot of fake news from media elites and others who have no interest in violations of Americans’ civil liberties via unmaskings.”

The House Intelligence Committee’s internal battles are in contrast to a parallel Russia investigation being conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and top Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia have forged a strong bipartisan relationship, and the Senate panel is preparing for a highly anticipated public hearing next week with former FBI Director James Comey.’

The behind-the-scenes battle in the House over the stalled interviews follows a Tweet from President Donald Trump earlier this week in which he accused Democrats of blocking a key witness interview.

Trump wrote on Wednesday that “Democrats, who have excoriated Carter Page about Russia, don’t want him to testify,” adding that Page “wants to clear his name.”

The two sources familiar with the probe, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive Russia probe, blamed Democrats for the witness interviews being put on hold, expressing concern that the investigation has ground to a halt as a result of Schiff’s objections.

“The majority and the witnesses are ready to go,” said one of the sources familiar with the House panel’s investigation. “But the minority continues to object claiming they aren’t ready.”

There is disagreement, though, over the reason for the stalled witness interviews.

A third source familiar with the probe — who agreed to be identified only as a senior committee aide — said Schiff and Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who’s now leading the investigation after Nunes’ decision to step aside, had agreed not to conduct witness interviews until after the witnesses responded to the committee’s requests for documents.

“Many such requests have yet to be complied with, and neither member believes that interviews should be scheduled until they are answered in full,” the senior committee aide explained. “Anyone suggesting that interviews should take place before the committee has a chance to review the relevant documents plainly does not have the best interests of the investigation in mind.”

Conaway’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Even with the fight over the stalled witness interviews, there are some signs of progress for the embattled House investigation, which nearly fell apart two months ago under Nunes’ controversial leadership. Nunes has never referred to his decision to step aside from the investigation as a full recusal.

The committee on Wednesday issued seven subpoenas, including to former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

Nunes unilaterally decided to issue three separate subpoenas related to the issue of unmaking without the agreement of Democrats. Unmasking is a process used by intelligence officials to learn the identities of people inside the United States who are referenced in intelligence reports.

Nunes has suggested the Obama administration might have abused the “unmasking” process to obtain the identities of Trump campaign aides who were caught up in routine surveillance of foreign targets. The Trump administration has cited the issue as evidence for the president’s much-maligned claim that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower.

Schiff said Thursday that he was only informed of Nunes’ subpoenas the night before they went out. He added that they were “part of the White House’s desire to shift attention away from the Russia probe and onto the issue of unmasking.”

Schiff called Nunes’ decision to issue the subpoenas “a violation” of his pledge to step aside from the probe and said he believes Nunes’ power to issue subpoenas related to the Russia probe should be relinquished to Conaway.

If House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) “wants to allow this kind of thing to go on,” Schiff said on MSNBC Thursday, “that is really up to him, and I think he will ultimately be held accountable for how this is conducted.”

The issue of the committee’s stalled interviews comes as several of the most high-profile witnesses are expressing an eagerness to appear before the panel.

Page signaled in a letter to the committee earlier this week he was more than ready to testify. He wrote that he had “learned from your committee staff” that “I might not be immediately afforded the opportunity” to address what he called “misleading testimony” by Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan and others.

Page indicated the committee had canceled a “previously scheduled” interview set for next week. “In the interest of finally providing the American people with some accurate information at long last, I hope that we can proceed with this straight dialogue soon,” he added.

Stone, meanwhile, said the House Intelligence panel has offered him a chance to testify privately with two members of each party present.

But the political provocateur, whose relationship to Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange has become a focus of congressional inquiries, said in an email to POLITICO that he’s demanding a public session before the full committee and has been unable to work out the logistics.

“Bottom line — they can’t handle the truth,” Stone wrote.

Aides to Conaway and Schiff declined to respond to Stone’s suggestion.

Credit to POLITICO

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