Russia investigation 'back on track' after Nunes recusal

Russia investigation 'back on track' after Nunes recusal
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The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election appears to be back on track after a month of bitter partisan infighting threatened to send it off the rails.

A small group of committee members closely involved with the investigation met Wednesday morning, Congress’s first full day back in session after the two-week April recess.

“As Mike Conaway put it, we ‘touched gloves’ — and I think we’re all very hopeful that we’re back on track,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said, referring to the Texas Republican who is heading the probe. 

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The apparent thaw came at a price for Republicans. Prior to the recess, committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) stepped aside from the investigation due to an Ethics Committee probe related to his handling of classified information involved in the investigation.

The recusal was a win for committee Democrats, who were uniformly positive about his replacement on Wednesday.

“I have every faith that we’re going to be back on track with Mr. Conaway. Clean slate, reboot — let me get my thesaurus out,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

Republicans were also quietly optimistic that the fragile truce — hailed as a “reset” — would hold.

“You gotta go into it with the impression that it will hold,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who along with Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyDem lawmaker calls on House to subpoena American translator from Trump-Putin meeting The Hill's Morning Report — Trump isolated and denounced after Putin meeting Ryan: 'The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally' MORE (R-S.C.) is assisting Conaway with the investigation. “Otherwise we’re wasting our time. 

“I think both [ranking member Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDem lawmaker: Putin will take Trump's attack on Mueller probe as 'green light' to interfere in 2018 The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Russians' indictment casts shadow ahead of Trump-Putin summit MORE (D-Calif.)] and Mike are sincere that they want to get to the bottom of the issue.”

Conaway himself has been conspicuously quiet since taking the reins of the investigation, which had ground to a virtual halt thanks not only by the animosity surrounding Nunes but arguments over who should be asked to testify — and when.

In the past several weeks, the investigation had split into two competing tracks, with Republicans doggedly pursuing leaks of classified information and Democrats seeking to ferret out connections between the Trump administration and Russia. 

The committee has since agreed on a preliminary witness list — composed of “three or four dozen” names, according to Himes — and is in the process of setting a hearing date for certain Obama administration officials sought by Democrats.

Much of the acrimony on the committee had centered on an appearance by former acting attorney general Sally Yates, which had been scheduled for March but was canceled at the last minute by Nunes. 

While Republicans claimed that the committee needed to interview FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers in a closed setting first, Democrats said the move was intended to shield the White House. Reports indicated that Yates was likely to offer testimony that would contradict with Trump administration officials.

The week before Yates had been scheduled to testify, Comey confirmed the existence of the FBI’s investigation into ties between members of President Trump’s campaign and Russia in the panel’s first open hearing. 

Yates is now set to testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in early May, and the House committee last week issued an invitation for her to appear sometime after the closed panel with Comey and Rogers, set for May 2.

The House committee is currently in talks with the Senate Intelligence leader to determine whether she will appear before both panels, according to Schiff, who called the effort a “work in progress.”

“Right now we’re seeing what we can coordinate with the Senate, how it makes sense to parse out the work,” Schiff said.

Himes estimated Wednesday that “one way or another, that will get worked out in the next 24 hours.”

Lawmakers were circumspect about who else is on the witness list.

It wasn’t immediately clear on Wednesday how the structure of the investigation will change under the new leadership format, with Rooney and Gowdy assisting Conaway. Democrats are also weighing bringing in additional members to form a kind of “steering group,” according to Schiff. 

But, he emphasized, “I’m very pleased with where we are right now.” 

“The main thing is we have moved past the cloud that we were under during the last couple of weeks, and I think we’re really moving forward in a very productive way.”

It also wasn’t clear on Wednesday whether the regular press briefings in the investigation started by Nunes would continue. In recent weeks, those briefings had been largely dominated by competing allegations about improper unmasking under the Obama administration from Nunes, followed by rebuttals from Schiff.

Republicans — and the White House — have been silent on the issue of unmasking and incidental collection in recent weeks. 

According to Himes, Conaway told lawmakers Wednesday morning to be prepared to stay in Washington more than usual to cope with the workload.

Both Conaway and Schiff declined to confirm that account.

“We’re going to do a thorough investigation, we’re going to work really hard and we’ll get it done as expeditiously as possible,” Conaway said before ducking onto the House floor. “And I’m not going to comment on the details.”