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Heads of Intel panel diverge on Trump–Russia contacts

Heads of Intel panel diverge on Trump–Russia contacts
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The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee gave dramatically different assessments Monday of the panel’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the presidential election.

In a last-minute press conference Monday morning, Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said he’d seen no evidence of regular contact between anyone in President Trump’s campaign and Russia.

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“There is no evidence that I’ve been presented [by the intelligence community] of regular contact with anybody in the Trump campaign,” Nunes told reporters. “The way it sounds like to me is, it’s been looked into and there’s no evidence of anything there.”

But in a separate availability just over three hours later, scheduled after Nunes’s public remarks, ranking Democrat Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHillicon Valley: Intel heads to resume threats hearing scrapped under Trump | New small business coalition to urge action on antitrust policy | Amazon backs corporate tax hike to pay for infrastructure Intel heads to resume worldwide threats hearing scrapped under Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden tasks Harris on border; news conference today MORE (Calif.) said it was too soon to make any judgments.

“We haven’t obtained any evidence yet, so it’s premature for us to be saying that we’ve reached any conclusions about the issue of collusion,” Schiff said, noting that the committee has not yet called witnesses or examined documents.

The daylight between the two leaders is unusual for the panel, which has traditionally worked on a bipartisan basis.

But the cooperative spirit of the Intelligence Committee is being put to the test as it faces pressure to review Russian efforts to influence the U.S. presidential election, including any links between Trump campaign officials and Moscow.

“The chairman and I have had an important working relationship that we both want to keep intact,” Schiff said carefully on Monday.

“I want to do everything in my power to make sure that we do a thorough and objective investigation, and if I get to the point where I conclude that’s just not possible, I’ll be vocal about it.”

Democrats have pressed for congressional investigations following a series of media reports linking the campaign with Russia. Those calls grew louder after the resignation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who misled Vice President Pence about the subject of a pre-inauguration call with the Russian ambassador.

Both Nunes and Schiff agreed that the Intelligence Committee’s review is still in its preliminary stages. They have finalized the scope of the investigation but have not yet begun receiving evidence from intelligence agencies.

Nunes, however, repeatedly downplayed media reports that claimed the FBI had uncovered regular contact between Russian officials and members of the president’s campaign.

Rather than links between the White House and Russia, Nunes insisted, the only “serious crime” of which the committee had any evidence is a variety of media leaks, apparently from the intelligence community.

Nunes and Schiff also differed sharply on the importance of investigating those leaks.

Schiff confirmed that the leaks would be part of the investigation but raised questions about whether the committee would be able to look into them without bringing in White House staff. While he condemned the leaks, he suggested that they were a distraction from the more important issue of Russian interference in the election.

Nunes, meanwhile, repeatedly invoked the leaks and said he was “very interested” in uncovering who made the decision to expose the contents of Flynn’s discussion with the Russian ambassador.

The Trump administration has sought to shift the focus away from any alleged communication between the campaign and Russian officials to the leakers themselves, reportedly enlisting Nunes, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrFormer North Carolina governor set to launch Senate bid North Carolina mayor Rett Newton launches Senate bid Democratic hopeful Jeff Jackson raises .3M for North Carolina Senate bid MORE (R-N.C.) and several high-ranking intelligence officials to help push back on media reports.

Nunes downplayed any contact he’d had with the White House, saying that he had merely reiterated comments he had already said publicly to a single reporter at the request of the White House press team.

Schiff warned of a “profound potential conflict of interest” for members who speak on behalf of a White House that is under investigation by the committee.

“I would urge members of our committee, including our chair, if they are reached out to by the administration on the subject of our investigation, they should politely decline,” Schiff said.

The two lawmakers also differed in their assessment of how closely the panel might work with Burr’s committee, which is also investigating Russian involvement in the election — including any contact between campaign associates and the Kremlin.

Nunes said that while he would try to work with the Senate where possible, “I view this as two separate branches of the legislative branch of government.”

Schiff called for the two investigations to be conducted jointly, noting that his calls to combine the two have so far been rebuffed.

“No one has explicitly ruled it out, neither have they welcomed the idea,” he said.