Five questions for the House's new Russia investigator

Five questions for the House's new Russia investigator
© Greg Nash

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) is taking the reins of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia following the recusal of Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). 

Conaway will have help from Reps. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyCummings announces expansion of Oversight panel's White House personal email probe, citing stonewalling Pelosi says it's up to GOP to address sexual assault allegation against Trump Our sad reality: Donald Trump is no Eisenhower MORE (R-S.C.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) as he pursues the politically charged review of Russia, its election activities and its possible connections to the Trump campaign

It is unclear how Conaway will split responsibilities with Gowdy and Rooney, as Nunes specified only that they would provide “assistance” to the new leader as he takes charge of the Russia probe. 

Gowdy is no stranger to contentious investigations, having led the two-year special review of the September 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Here are five questions for the House’s Russia investigation moving forward. 

Will Conaway give attention to Nunes’ claims of incidental collection?

The focus of the House investigation last month fell on the possibility that Trump associates were part of intelligence surveillance after the election. Nunes revealed the possibility of that collection in an unusual public statement, citing an intelligence source. 

Democrats clamored for Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation after details emerged about him meeting with his source on White House grounds — raising suspicion that his disclosure had been coordinated by the administration.

Nunes’ recusal gives the committee an opportunity to get back to regular order, though some Republicans still want answers on whether the Obama administration improperly requested the “unmasking” of Trump associates in intelligence reports. 

Republicans have linked the “unmasking” to intelligence leaks to the media about contacts between Trump associates— former national security adviser Michael Flynn among them — and Russian officials. The committee’s investigation covers leaks of classified information. 

Gowdy pressed FBI Directory James Comey on “unmasking” authorities during a hearing on March 20 hearing. The congressman suggested that former Obama administration officials — including former national security adviser Susan Rice — could have been the source of leaks to the media about Flynn’s communications. 

Rice has flatly denied that she unmasked the identities of U.S. persons for political purposes.

“The notion, which some people are trying to suggest, that by asking for the identity of the American person is the same is leaking it — that’s completely false,” Rice told MSNBC. “There is no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking.” 

CNN reported that lawmakers and aides from both parties who have viewed the documents seen by Nunes have not found any evidence of wrongdoing.

But Conaway could feel pressure from his Republican colleagues to investigate further.

How will the panel avoid conflict with the FBI’s investigation?

The committee has not held a public hearing on Russia since Comey revealed that the FBI is investigating possible links or coordination between members of Trump’s campaign and Moscow. That will change on May 2, when a public hearing is set with several witnesses, including former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration who was fired by President Trump.

Wit the committees in the House and Senate as well as the FBI each spearheading separate probes into the election interference, lawmakers will have to be careful not to compromise the work of law enforcement.

Mieke Eoyang, a former staffer on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill that Conaway, Gowdy and Rooney need to make sure that their investigation is “not going too fast to get in the way of the FBI’s investigation, but going fast enough to show that they’re keeping their investigation on track.”

The FBI is running a counterintelligence probe and looking at whether any crimes were committed. Congressional probes are traditionally focused on oversight, addressing problems through legislative authority, and fact gathering on behalf of the American people.

Still, the bureau and congressional committees are likely to see overlap in the witnesses they are interested in hearing from, particularly Trump associates who are suspected of having contacts with Russia. 

Will Conaway maintain a bipartisan tone with ranking member Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff: US 'not ready' to battle foreign election interference in 2020 This week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Election security to take back seat at Mueller hearing MORE?

Last month saw a breakdown in the leadership on the House panel, with ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) joining a chorus of Democrats demanding Nunes’s recusal.

The strife in the House stood in sharp contrast to the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Sanders mounts staunch defense of 'Medicare for All' | Biden, Sanders fight over health care heats up | House votes to repeal ObamaCare 'Cadillac Tax' | Dems want details on fetal tissue research ban Top North Carolina newspapers editorial board to GOP: 'Are you OK with a racist president?' Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns MORE (R-N.C.) and ranking member Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerElection security to take back seat at Mueller hearing Top Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime MORE (D-Va.) held a press conference to promise a bipartisan investigation.

Conaway’s temporary appointment gives the House Intelligence committee a chance to lower the temperature amid growing calls from Democrats for an independent commission to investigate Russia.

Schiff said he respected Nunes’s recusal and that he looks forward to working with Conaway to put the investigation “fully back on track.” 

Conaway, who has been on the committee for more than eight years, has said that he wants to work with Schiff. 

“My profession as a [certified public accountant] and auditor has taught me to be objective and methodical, and that is how I intend to help lead this investigation,” Conaway said in a statement on April 6. “I am confident that Ranking Member Schiff and I will be able to work together to conduct an effective, bipartisan investigation.”

Will the committee take Michael Flynn up on his offer of immunity?

Flynn has offered to be interviewed by the FBI and congressional lawmakers investigating Russian election interference in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The former White House national security adviser is known to have had contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States and has also been scrutinized for tens of thousands of dollars in payments he received from Russian organizations, including $45,00 from Moscow’s state-controlled media outlet, RT.

Flynn resigned from his White House post after not telling administration officials the full truth about his phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak after the election. 

The Senate has reportedly rejected Flynn’s immunity offer — for now. Schiff said late last month that the House committee members would discuss the offer with their counterparts in the Senate and the Justice Department, indicating that they would wait to hear from other witnesses before considering any such request. 

“While Mr. Flynn’s testimony is of great interest to our committee, we are also deeply mindful of the interests of the Department of Justice in this matter,” Schiff said. “There is still much work and many more witnesses and documents to obtain before any immunity request from any witness can be considered.”

Who will be called to testify? 

Besides Yates, former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are set to testify at the May 2 public hearing.

What's unknown is whether several Trump campaign members and associates will eventually testify.

Both former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former foreign policy adviser Carter Page along with Roger Stone — a longtime Trump ally who has admitted to having contact with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker persona who claimed responsibility for the hack of the Democratic National Committee — have offered to testify before the House Intelligence Committee as part of the Russia investigation.

As the new interim leader, Conaway will be able to set the committee’s agenda for the investigation and potentially call these witnesses to be interviewed. 

A spokesman for Manafort, who resigned as Trump’s campaign chair last August amid scrutiny over his past work for Russian-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, said last week that he might register as a foreign agent. 

The Washington Post also recently reported that the FBI obtained a FISA warrant to monitor communications of Page under suspicion that he was acting as an agent of a foreign power. 

Page, who made the rounds on television last week, has denied that he acted as a foreign agent. But during an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Page would not rule out discussing sanctions on Moscow with Russian officials. 

This story has been updated.