The Week Congress’s Credibility Got Trumped

The Trump Administration and its ally in Congress, Devin Nunes, have put yet more cracks in the foundation of American government. Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California, is the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to oversee the conduct of the U.S. intelligence community on behalf of Congress. Nunes has always had close ties to Trump – he served on the transition team when Trump was preparing to take office. This week he did three things that showed he has greater allegiance to Trump than to the country or the truth. First, when Nunes received classified information related to the investigation into Trump’s possible collusion with Russian agents during the election, he showed that information to Trump, compromising the House’s oversight of intelligence agencies’ investigation. Next, he refused to show that information to the rest of the Committee, who require it in order to properly oversee the intelligence community. Finally, he cancelled a public hearing with individuals whose testimony will almost certainly be damaging to Trump. By compromising House oversight to protect Trump, Nunes has sown doubt among the American People and the world about whether the American government still has the functional ability to hold the President accountable.

Trump got egg on his face at last week’s Intelligence Committee hearing

On Monday, March 20, the Donald had a really bad day. Ever since his bizarre tweets on March 4, 2017, alleging that President Obama had wiretapped him during the election and transition, most Americans have been expecting confirmation that there was no basis for Trump’s allegations. That confirmation came in a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee last Monday. The mission of the House Intelligence Committee is to oversee the conduct of the United States Intelligence Services. Basically it is a check on the President’s use of spooks, and so it fell to the Committee to investigate whether there was any truth to Trump’s ridiculous claims. Both FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers testified unambiguously that there was no evidence supporting an Obama wiretap. Additionally,  they revealed there is an investigation into whether Trump and his associates colluded with Russian operatives to swing the election. That second revelation, in particular, should have been a cause for significant bipartisan concern. The FBI’s counterintelligence division is investigating a sitting President and his associates for collusion with a foreign power. Of course, that’s not how it went.

Republicans tried to help Trump, and politicized intelligence oversight in the process

In a move that seems to be the new normal, Republican members of the Committee tried to cover up yet more disproven Trumpian allegations by redirecting the topic of the hearing. They refused to acknowledge the problem of Russian interference in the election, instead focusing exclusively on the issue of the intelligence leaks that led to the resignation of former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn (for lying about communications with the Russian Ambassador).  At one point, Representative Trey Gowdy even suggested Director Comey should be locking up journalists. It had the pointless, destructive effect of politicizing the issue of intelligence leaks – now most people either think Russian interference is a problem or they think leaks are a problem. In reality, both of these problems are serious and both are the jurisdiction of the House Intelligence Committee. However, their gambit was unsuccessful; the Press still reported widely that Trump had invented a fictitious wiretap and is under investigation. Then their Chairman stepped into the breach.

Devin Nunes abandoned his duty in order to act as a Trump surrogate

On Wednesday, Nunes evidently changed his tune on leaks, as he took leaked classified information regarding Trump associates and walked directly into Trump’s office and gave it to him. He refused to share the information with his associates on the Committee. Then he walked out to the Press and told them that he had information that Trump associates were surveilled “incidentally” during the Obama Administration. Trump said that he feels “vindicated” by this new information, but here’s the thing: this information isn’t new. “Incidental surveillance” refers to information collected about American citizens because they communicated with individuals, such as agents of foreign governments, who are already under surveillance. We already knew this happened.  That’s how we know Michael Flynn talked to the Russian Ambassador! So, in sum, Devin Nunes handed Trump classified information, the details of which are unclear, and then walked out to the Press and used old news to imply that Trump had been right about wiretapping. The only credible interpretation for this behavior is that Nunes was trying to help Trump save face. Nunes himself said he felt he had a “duty” to share the information with Trump because he was taking “heat” in the media. He has completely disqualified himself.

The Committee is now permanently compromised, and cannot investigate Trump

The Committee’s credibility is gone. On Friday, Nunes abruptly canceled an open hearing at which former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who informed the White House that Flynn lied about his communications with Russia’s Ambassador, was supposed to testify. The hearing was also supposed to include testimony by President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence and CIA Director. In light of Nunes’s defense of Trump earlier in the week, neither the media nor  his colleagues believed he cancelled the hearing for objective reasons. As Rep. Schiff said, “the chairman will either need to decide if he’s leading an investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both.” It is important that any investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia has credibility, and it is now almost impossible for Congress, or at least the House of Representatives, to produce findings that the country and the world can accept as a conclusive and objective consideration of these issues. It’s time to open an independent investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. To do otherwise will continue to erode our institutions to a degree that might make them unsalvageable, even if Trump ends up making an undignified and involuntary exit.

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