The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday said the "beyond irregular" behavior of the committee's Republican chairman has "underscored the imperative of an independent investigation" into Russian interference in last year's election—comments that capped off a series of explosive Capitol Hill developments surrounding a controversy that refuses to die.
"The chairman needs to think about which role he wants to play here. Is he going to play a role as surrogate for the administration or is he going to play a role of leading an independent investigation? He can't do both."
—Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the GOP chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, came under fire later by congressional colleagues after he went outside normal protocols by briefing President Donald Trump earlier in the day on classified materials that had yet to be vetted by his own committee.
As many noted, it is highly unusual for the chairman to take such actions or speak publicly on sensitive matters in the absence of the committee's ranking member. The Intelligence Committee remains one of the few in congress where bipartisan decorum, at least in broad strokes, is both honored and expected.
In both a written statement and subsequent press conference, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, called Nunes to account for briefing Trump and said he only learned of the new disclosures when the chairman held a live press conference outside the White House.
It was in those remarks to the press that Nunes revealed that the U.S. intelligence community may have incidentally collected information on members of Trump's transition team, explaining that this information was contained in classified intelligence reports that were "widely disseminated" within the government. Watch:
"While there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower," Nunes said, "I was concerned that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates."
However, regardless of the content of the information, it was Nunes' delivery of it without letting Schiff even know of its existence that set off alarms and generated the largest rebuke. Within an hour of Nunes' remarks, Schiff released the following statement:
Schiff wasn't alone in his concern, with CNN reporting Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, as saying Nunes' statements "would appear to reveal classified information, which is a serious concern."
Whereas Trump subsequently told reporters he felt "somewhat" vindicated by the information provided to him by Nunes, Schiff held an emergency press conference where he characterized the situation as deeply troubling. Watch:
In a follow-up interview with MSNBC's Chuck Todd, Schiff said that Nunes had struck a "body blow" against the committee's credibility and again suggested the likely avenue forward should be an independent commission to investigate any possible connection between the Trump team and potential Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"My confidence [in Nunes] has been severely shaken," Schiff said. "The chairman needs to think about which role he wants to play here. Is he going to play a role as surrogate for the administration or is he going to play a role of leading an independent investigation? He can't do both."
Also in that interview, Schiff made other possible headlines by saying there remains "more than circumstantial evidence" of possible ties—though he skirted the word "collusion"—between Russian interference and Trump's circle that is "worthy of investigation."
— Andrew Kirell (@AndrewKirell) March 22, 2017
Meanwhile, outside experts, including investigative journalist and intelligence expert Marcy Wheeler, responded to the Nunes' behavior in harsh terms:
So Devin Nunes just called a press conference to announce to world he was about to commit obstruction of justice?
Not brightest one, Nunes
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) March 22, 2017
My GAWD Devin Nunes doesn't know fuckall about the surveillance he oversees. Can we have a hearing on THAT?
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) March 22, 2017
"If a Democrat had done this, Republicans would have been asking for him to be investigated both for disclosing classified information and for obstructing justice," Matthew Miller, a Department of Justice spokesman during the Obama administration, told the Huffington Post. "It is so far beyond the pale for the person who is conducting an investigation to both brief the subject of that investigation and potentially jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the FBI."