House Speaker Paul Ryan is backing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes in his latest feud with the Justice Department, brushing aside concerns that disclosing certain information could endanger national security and once again blessing his fellow Republican’s controversial tactics.
Ryan, who spoke with Nunes this week, argued that his demand for documents related to the Russia investigation is “wholly appropriate” and should be complied with.
“This request is perfectly appropriate, within the scope of the committee’s investigation. And I hope and I believe and expect that they will be complied with,” Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said Thursday.
For months, Nunes has been battling with the Justice Department for a range of documents in an attempt to sow doubt about the roots of the Russia investigation. The Justice Department has repeatedly appealed to Ryan to get Nunes to back off, warning his tactics could undercut ongoing investigations. But Ryan has repeatedly sided with his colleague from California, who has ultimately received most of what he’s sought.
Nunes and South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, an Intelligence Committee member and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, went to the Justice Department on Thursday for a classified briefing on their latest document request that’s connected to the Russia investigation and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The Republican lawmakers were at the Justice Department for a little over an hour Thursday, and they did not answer questions from reporters as they departed.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Nunes and Gowdy said they had a “productive” meeting with officials from the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“The officials committed to holding further discussions of these matters, and we look forward to continuing our dialogue next week to satisfy the committee’s request,” Nunes and Gowdy said.
The briefing was set up after Nunes had threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt over the standoff, which prompted a round of negotiations between Nunes and the Justice Department in which White House chief of staff John Kelly also got involved, according to a source familiar with the matter. The White House and Kelly so far have backed the Justice Department’s decision not to provide Congress with the documents being sought.
The Justice Department has said that the classified request from Nunes could not be fulfilled because it involved a “specific individual” and could risk lives and sources. A copy of the non-classified appendix to last week’s subpoena, which was reviewed by CNN, directly requests “all documents referring or related to the individual referenced in Chairman Nunes’ April 24, 2018 letter to Attorney General Sessions.”
But Republicans have rejected the Justice Department’s arguments, saying they are entitled to the materials being sought as part of congressional oversight of the Executive Branch.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Thursday that Congress is entitled to the information, saying “we are separate but co-equal.”
Asked about the Justice Department’s concerns that disclosure could risk lives, McCarthy pushed back.
“Nunes has not asked for it to be released,” fellow Californian McCarthy said. “It will stay classified .. I think Nunes sees classified information all the time … I don’t see any problem with that.”
Ryan said that he had spoken to Nunes, Gowdy and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the matter.
“This is a classified request. And I believe that they can honor this request without jeopardizing those issues,” he said when asked about the Justice Department’s concerns that disclosing the information could endanger lives. “I expect that we will be able to have an accommodation to honor this request.”
It’s not yet clear what path Nunes will pursue if he doesn’t get access Thursday to the documents he’s seeking.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who sits on the panel, said he “would argue for” the committee to proceed with contempt proceedings if Nunes’ request is not honored, adding that denying the information is “constitutionally unsound.”
“These guys work for us,” Stewart said.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, will receive the same briefing but separately from Nunes and Gowdy on Thursday, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
Schiff told CNN before the briefing that the request is the latest demand in a pattern from House Republicans to pressure the Justice Department with new document requests in order to try to force a fight with senior Justice Department officials.
“I’ve expressed my concerns to them with prior requests that (Republicans) are going to keep asking until they get ‘no’ for an answer because they just want to have a fight with the Justice Department,” Schiff said. “The Justice Department is going to be in a no-win situation.”
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused Republicans of trying to create a situation to remove Sessions or Rosenstein from office.
“Bombarding the Justice Department with document requests simply to create a pretext for firing or impeaching our nation’s senior law enforcement officials is a blatant abuse of power that should concern everyone who believes in the rule of law, Republican and Democrat alike,” Warner tweeted.