As the Trump-Russia scandal expands, Republicans responsible for leading investigations into the matter have consistently pursued angles that critics say are designed to undermine the investigation and distract attention from the main issue: Russia’s covert interference in the 2016 election and interactions between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Last week, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) joined in a key component of that GOP effort: attempts to deflect attention by focusing on what’s known as the Steele dossier. These are the memos written during the campaign by a veteran British intelligence official that included allegations that the Kremlin had sought to cultivate and co-opt Trump, in part by collecting compromising information on him, and that his campaign secretly exchanged information with Moscow.
Nunes, who was forced to step aside from the Trump-Russia probe in March, returned to the fray by subpoenaing the Justice Department and FBI to demand information on the FBI’s interactions with Steele, who began sharing his memos with the bureau in the summer of 2016. The subpoenas seek material on whether the FBI paid Steele or used his information to apply for secret warrants (presumably to eavesdrop on Trump-related targets).
Democrats say the request appears to be the latest example of committee Republicans attempting to furnish the White House with talking points to diminish the Russia scandal. “They seem to want to do the president’s bidding and parrot the president’s misguided beliefs,” says Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.
It may seem odd that Republicans believe going after the Steele memos, which included salacious allegations about Trump, is a way to help the president. But they appear to have two goals: to suggest the Steele memos were actually cooked up by the Russian government—and thus are proof that Moscow did not favor Trump in 2016—and to undercut the FBI’s Russia investigation by linking its origins to the Steele memos.
Nunes’ demands mirror prior requests from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to the Justice Department and FBI. Grassley’s letters demanded information while also implying misconduct by the FBI related to the Steele dossier, an effort that hit some political pay dirt. A hearing Grassley convened in July covered the previously reported fact that Fusion GPS, the firm that retained Steele to dig up information on Trump’s Russia ties, also worked for a law firm representing Prevezon Holdings, a company owned by the son of a senior Russian official that faced a federal lawsuit over fraud and money laundering.
The White House has seized on the Grassley-publicized connection between Fusion GPS and Prevezon to suggest that the Steele dossier was actually the result of a Russian operation—which would suggest Trump is not a Kremlin favorite but a victim. “The Democrat-linked firm Fusion GPS actually took money from the Russian government while it created the phony dossier that’s been the basis for all of the Russia scandal fake news,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said after Grassley’s hearing.
Trump, in a July 29 tweet, went further. Citing a breathless Fox News report on the committee hearing, the president asserted, contrary to the consensus of the US intelligence community, that “Russia was against Trump in the 2016 Election.”
Democrats see an effort to gin up controversy over of the Steele memos to protect Trump. “They tried to conflate two things so that they could create the false narrative that the Russians were meddling on both sides,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a Judiciary Committee member, told Mother Jones.
Swalwell and other Intelligence Committee Democrats note that Nunes decided to issue the subpoenas to the FBI and Justice Department without first asking if these agencies would voluntarily provide the information. They suggest Nunes did this to create the appearance that the FBI and Justice Department were not cooperating, cooking up another distraction.
“If this is an honest pursuit,” says Swalwell, “why not seek it from those agencies in voluntary fashion?”
The subpoenas were issued over objections from Democrats, according to Swalwell and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “Whenever we go outside of doing things collaboratively, I am immediately suspicious about what the intent is,” adds Swalwell.
Nunes’ latest action is a red flag: In March, after he was exposed collaborating with White House officials in a ham-handed effort to support Trump’s false claim that former President Barack Obama “wiretapped” Trump Tower, Nunes announced he would “step aside” from the Russia probe. His renewed role, Democrats say, suggests committee Republicans are resuming the more partisan approach they softened when Nunes was sidelined.
“He should not be involved,” Swalwell argues. “Every time he does that he adds an asterisk to the integrity and credibility of the investigation.”
Schiff notes that committee Republicans have been less eager to issue other subpoenas. For instance, they have not agreed to demand the White House hand over material on conversations between Trump and former FBI Director James Comey, who Trump fired after Comey resisted his requests related to the bureau’s Russia investigation.
“There we should subpoena the White House,” Schiff said Tuesday on MSNBC, “but they have not been willing.”