Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment
House Republicans are escalating their feud with Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, accusing the California Democrat of carrying out a “smear campaign” against his GOP counterpart, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), by publishing his phone records in the panel’s sweeping impeachment report.
Collecting the phone data has been strongly defended by Democrats while Republicans have seized on the new controversy as unfair and a bad precedent.
President Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill have sought to shine the spotlight back on Schiff as Democrats build their case against the president and continue marching toward an impeachment vote as soon as next week.
During Monday’s impeachment hearing, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), spent several minutes ripping into the Democrats for including the Nunes records — something Collins argued added no value to the report and was only done as a “political vendetta” against one of Trump’s key defenders.
“It was a drive by. It was a gratuitous drive by that you wanted to smear the ranking member,” Collins told Schiff’s Democratic counsel, Daniel Goldman.
Schiff’s report detailed that Nunes had multiple communications with key figures in the House impeachment inquiry: Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, as well as with Giuliani’s Soviet-born associate Lev Parnas, who has been indicted on campaign finance charges. The records also show Giuliani was in communication with conservative opinion columnist John Solomon, who previously worked for The Hill.
The phone logs indicate Nunes and Giuliani spoke briefly three times and texted once on April 10. It also shows numerous attempts at contact between Parnas and Nunes on April 12, including an eight-minute phone call.
The metadata — which only show phone numbers and durations of calls, not the substance of the calls or texts — raises serious questions about why Nunes was in frequent contact, at conspicuous times, with individuals who were part of a shadow campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate one of Trump’s key political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
It’s “deeply concerning that at a time when the president of the United States was using the power of his office to dig up dirt on a political rival,” Schiff said recently, “that there may be evidence that there were members of Congress complicit in that activity.”
Intelligence Committee Democrats have said they did not subpoena Nunes’s or Solomon’s phone records. But they declined to name specific individuals whose phone records they targeted.
“The Committee did not subpoena call records for any member of Congress or their staff, including Ranking Member Nunes, or for any journalist, including Mr. Solomon,” Schiff spokesman Patrick Boland said in a statement. He declined to comment further on Monday.
House Democrats, including Schiff, have said it is standard procedure for investigators to seek phone records and suggested GOP lawmakers are pandering to their base in a public relations effort. Some have speculated that the phone records of Giuliani and Parnas were subpoenaed, and those records showed contact with Nunes and Solomon.
Collins and other Republicans said they had no issue with the Intelligence panel issuing subpoenas to mobile-phone carriers or writing its report. But they thought it was inappropriate to reveal the names of individuals swept up in the call logs who are not the target of a criminal investigation. Collins said the report should have referred to Nunes anonymously as “Congressperson 1.”
“Where I do have a problem and a really big problem … is the fact that somebody made a decision to match certain data, megadata, metadata that had been collected through the subpoena with phone numbers of journalists and members of Congress, and that is the beginning of a surveillance state, which I think is outrageous,” said former Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), one of the architects of the 2001 Patriot Act, which drastically expanded federal surveillance authority in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Another Judiciary Committee member, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), told The Hill: “I think it’s disgraceful, it’s appalling, it ought to frighten the hell out of every American. If he can do that to Devin Nunes, he can do that to anybody he doesn’t like.”
Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), the No. 2 Republican in House leadership, went as far as suggesting Schiff was “spying” on members of Congress and the press and questioned why the records weren’t raised during any of the televised Intelligence hearings last month. Top Republicans called for Schiff to testify at Monday’s hearing, in hopes of having the opportunity to grill the chairman about the phone records. Schiff sent his staff counsel, Goldman, instead.
More details about the Schiff subpoenas emerged during Monday’s hearing. GOP counsel Stephen Castor testified that Republicans had received copies of six subpoenas. The first was submitted to AT&T for Giuliani’s records, while the second was submitted to CSC Holdings in regard to Igor Fruman, an associate of Giuliani’s who was indicted with Parnas in connection with an alleged campaign finance fraud scheme.
The third, related to Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, was submitted to Verizon, while the fourth and fifth were also sent to AT&T.
Nunes spoke about his disapproval of the move during a private GOP conference meeting Friday, according to a Republican aide.
“I think a lot of members were really sort of ginned up or fired up about how egregious this kind of abuse of power would be from Adam Schiff to obtain and publicize the phone record of one of his colleagues, of members of the press, how unprecedented it is,” the aide said. “It’s definitely something our members are fired up about.”
While the phone records have sparked new life into the GOP’s attacks on Schiff, Nunes’s answers on his interactions with Parnas have also drawn questions from his critics.
The California Republican has said he does not recall having conversations with Parnas.
“I haven’t gone through all my phone records,” Nunes said during an appearance on Fox News. “I don’t really recall that name, I remember that name now because he’s been indicted.”
Parnas’s lawyer, Joseph Bondy, took to Twitter to go after the congressman following his remarks on Fox.
“Hey @DevinNunes—Lev remembers what you spoke about. You don’t remember? #LetLevSpeak,” he tweeted on Thursday.
Zack Budryk contributed.