House Russia investigators stumble into 'new phase'

Trump suggests Rice broke law, offers no proof
Trump suggests Rice broke law, offers no proof

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Story highlights

  • After a chaotic couple of weeks, the House intelligence committee is taking steps toward calm
  • The panel is meeting Thursday and is investigation Russian meddling into the US election

(CNN)"We're into a new phase of the investigation."

That's House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes explaining earlier this week why he's not talking any more about the House's chaotic, dual-pronged investigation into Russia meddling into the US election, a probe that came perilously close to running off the rails, but appears to have possibly found its way again after some soul-searching and some cooling down.
House investigators will meet one more time this week -- Thursday morning -- before heading out of Washington for a two-week break.
    One week ago the House investigation was on life support -- the butt of late-night television jokes with each new revelation about Nunes' coordination with the White House to reveal intelligence they said proved that Trump's aides were picked up in intelligence collection.
    Top Democrats said Nunes, R-California, had jeopardized the credibility of their entire inquiry into Russian interference in the US elections and must recuse himself, a pair of hearings was canceled -- with each cancellation the subject of its own mini-drama -- and Senate investigators even wrote off the House operation as a "sideshow" and a "circus."
    Now Republicans and Democrats on the panel appear closer to running an investigation -- they are nearing an agreement on a list of witnesses to call, and they have agreed to ask FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers to return for a private briefing. They could also soon agree on rescheduling the public hearing where former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was expected to testify about communications between Russians and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
    However, the fundamental divide at the center of the investigation remains: It's really two investigations -- a Republican focus on leaks to the media and the "unmasking" of Trump aides' identities marched up against a Democratic focus on the potential collusion between Trump aides and Russian officials to swing the election to Trump.
    The latter focus has had Democrats saying this week that they expect Trump aides to serve jail time by the time it is all over. But the introduction of former national security adviser Susan Rice into the messy mix this week gave Trump himself the ammo to allege she actually committed a crime.
    But putting Rice in play came at a great cost -- with Nunes' clandestine trip to the White House grounds to review documents provided by White House staff that appeared to support some of Trump's claims about surveillance, only to turn around the next day and brief Trump on the documents that Trump's own staff provided Nunes.
    The question of why Trump's staff went to Nunes and not Trump first has been a persistent one around the Capitol, and one that Nunes has not answered yet.
    The committee has had false starts toward getting back on track before. House investigators appeared to move closer to mending that wound last Friday after California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, was allowed to review the documents himself at the White House. And Schiff announced Tuesday that other members of the House intelligence committee would be able to see the documents for themselves soon.
    But that, too, became the subject of an internal spat with Schiff saying that Trump personally promised him all members would be able to view the documents, but a White House spokesperson saying that only members of the select "Gang of Eight" -- the top leaders in the House and Senate and their respective intelligence committees -- would be granted access to the documents.
    It's become a surprisingly partisan quagmire for House investigators, after an boisterous bipartisan start more than a month ago. Nunes and Schiff used to appear regularly together at news conferences and chatted throughout the six-hour public hearing where Comey and Rogers first testified.
    But the partisan split was ripped open shortly after Comey confirmed during a public hearing the FBI has been running a criminal investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials bent on swaying the US election, since last July. That very admission led to the spectacle of Trump sub-tweeting his own FBI director from the official White House account and Democrats then questioning Comey about those very tweets in real time.
    The circus-like show on display has belied the serious level of work investigators on both sides know they must do -- with investigative staff leading negotiations to bring in potential witnesses like Flynn, while pressing for intelligence documents from agencies who have traditionally been apprehensive providing sensitive intelligence to Congress.
    House Speaker Paul Ryan twice said that he wants the House to run a successful bipartisan investigation and he reiterated that point in a private meeting with Republican members of the Intelligence Committee Tuesday.
    It was shortly after that meeting Tuesday that Nunes said he was done talking about the investigation. Because, as he said, they're heading into a "new phase."