House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes was livid.
For months, he had been demanding a fully uncensored version of a highly sensitive document from the Justice Department explaining how the Russia investigation began in 2016, but he wasn’t getting it.
As the standoff escalated, Nunes began warning Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – the man in charge of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation – that he could face contempt of Congress, or even worse.
“We’re not going to just hold in contempt,” Nunes said to Fox News last month. “We will have a plan to hold in contempt and to impeach.”
Nunes had already been offered time to review a copy of the electronic communication formally authorizing the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but he had publicly demanded to see what was behind certain blacked out lines.
Facing the growing pressure, and outrage from President Donald Trump, Rosenstein finally relented in early April – and granted Nunes and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina access to the document with only minimal redactions to protect the name of a foreign country and agent, along with all members of the House Intelligence Committee.
But when the pair arrived at the Justice Department to review the electronic communication, officials were caught off-guard by his next move. Nunes – sitting with a copy of the document in an unopened folder directly in front of him – opted not to read it, according to four sources with knowledge of the situation.
Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, reviewed a copy and since then nearly a dozen other lawmakers have gone to the Justice Department to read the document, sources say.
As Nunes has moved aggressively to publicly sow doubt about the Russia investigation, the moment marked at least the second time that he has demanded sensitive documents from the Justice Department, only to choose not to read them – allowing his staff or Gowdy to pore through the materials instead. The California Republican admitted in February that he did not read any applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
His supporters say there’s nothing untoward about a chairman being briefed by his staff. But critics say it’s another sign Nunes is merely interested in wielding his power to target his political enemies and give cover to Trump, rather than independently learning about the nuances of a complex investigation.
Asked twice in recent days if he personally had read the document that he demanded detailing the start of the Russia probe, Nunes pointedly refused to answer.
“You know I don’t talk about committee business,” he told CNN.
Asked later for a yes-or-no answer, Nunes repeated the same refrain: “You know I don’t talk to you about this stuff.”
A Nunes spokesman also would not say if his boss read the documents he’s demanded from the department.
“I admire CNN’s unrivaled ability to faithfully produce foolish hit pieces on Republicans that are spoon-fed to them by anonymous sources,” Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said in a statement, providing no further comment.
After being briefed on the documents about the start of the Russia probe, Nunes began to raise major alarms, telling Fox News there was no basis to launch the investigation in the first place, saying there were “major problems” with the investigation.
Yet Gowdy has not gone nearly so far.
Indeed, unlike Nunes, Gowdy has defended the Mueller investigation amid criticism within his own party.
Gowdy spokeswoman Amanda Gonzalez said her boss has “read everything he has been asked to read,” including the electronic communication with minimal redactions and the FISA documents about the surveillance on Page. She said he “fully supports” the Russia investigation and the asking of “fair but firm” questions of officials in the Executive Branch.
“While he was not surprised by what he read, Chairman Gowdy does have additional questions for the drafter of the EC,” Gonzalez said, referring to the electronic communication. “As Chairman Gowdy has said many times, he fully supports Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation, and believes Mueller should be given the time, the independence, and the resources to conduct a thorough investigation.”
Democrats say being briefed on crucial documents is insufficient.
“You have to go and read this stuff, you can’t just get briefed by people who are making it their crusade to undermine the investigation,” California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the committee, told CNN when another GOP member, Rep. Peter King of New York, said he had been briefed by Nunes’ staff on the document. “I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t go over and read it themselves. I mean, the Department of Justice is 10 blocks away from here, and it took me 90 minutes to read.”
The Justice Department declined to comment.
A pattern of demands
Nunes took a similar tack when he pushed the Justice Department to give him full access to classified materials regarding the dossier on Trump and Russia, namely the FISA application to monitor Page, who advised the Trump campaign on foreign policy issues. After months of furious lobbying, where House Speaker Paul Ryan got involved as well, the Justice Department ultimately allowed lawmakers to review the FISA application.
Initially, the Justice Department let the House Intelligence Committee and other panels designate one Republican and one Democratic lawmaker, along with two staff members, to review more than 1,000 pages of classified materials. Nunes designated Gowdy to do so on his behalf. That review later became the basis of the so-called, “Nunes memo,” which Nunes and Trump seized on to accuse the Justice Department and FBI of improperly monitoring Page just weeks before the 2016 election.
“The committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust,” Nunes said after the memo’s release.
At least 19 lawmakers have personally reviewed the FISA application at the Justice Department, according to sources. Nunes’ senior staff has reviewed the records. But Nunes still has not done so.
Nunes, however, has been coy about whether he’s personally read the documents he’s demanded.
After heading to the Justice Department to see the electronic communication, Nunes left the impression he had personally reviewed the document. In an interview with Fox Business last month, the first question was whether he had seen the document.
“That’s correct,” Nunes responded, adding “it took us a long time” to access the document.
Yet, he also mentioned on multiple occasions that his “investigators” had reviewed the record.
“So what we found now, after the investigators have reviewed it, is that in fact there was no intelligence,” Nunes said to Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, calling it a “major problem.”
Asked if that meant there was no official intelligence to start the Russia probe, Nunes said, “I think that’s the point. We don’t understand, we’ve never understood. We have access to these finished intelligence products and we’ve never seen one” reason to start the probe.
Republicans and Democrats have come away from viewing the electronic communication with completely opposite views about its significance. Neither party has discussed the details of what’s in it, however, because the document is classified.
“Having reviewed that document, the FBI had ample reason to initiate an investigation,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat on the committee. “Would the information have convicted in a court of law? No, but that’s not the standard when you start an investigation. It would have been an act of gross negligence based on the evidence at hand had the FBI declined to follow up on the leads that they had.”
“I want to meet the FBI supervisor who would not open an investigation with the information that they had,” Swalwell said. “The information that started the investigation was alarming, and the evidence that Carter Page was an agent of a foreign power was voluminous.”
Page has acknowledged that he had “brief interactions” with a low-level Russian official in 2013, but has vehemently denied any allegations of wrongdoing.
Several Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee say the electronic communication shows the documentation for the start of the Russia investigation was unfounded.
“It’s a fair question: What evidence did you have to start this investigation?” said Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who sits on the committee. “Well, the answer isn’t very good.”
King, who also sits on the panel, said that it showed the start of the investigation was “baseless.”
“To me, there was no real basis for the investigation to begin in the first place,” King said. The FBI was “using a backdoor process to rely on data, which did not rise to any intelligence level. Rumors, rather than intelligence.”
King said at the time that he hadn’t yet read the document, but had been briefed by Nunes’ staff.