The case for an independent investigation just got stronger.
The lawmakers in charge of investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives are also helping the Trump campaign counter negative news stories, according to reporting by The Washington Post and Axios.
The news — confirmed by the White House and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), one of the lawmakers — is a strong blow to the credibility of the congressional investigation and any appearance that the investigation is being conducted free from political influence.
According to the reports, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer asked Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Nunes to speak to reporters and dispute stories alleging frequent contact between Trump campaign members and Russian intelligence operatives. Burr picked up the phone at Spicer’s request and told reporters the story was false, Axios reports, but didn’t provide any evidence to back it up, and wasn’t quoted on the record.
Nunes reportedly volunteered. He told The Post that he was already making similar calls, but made an additional one at the White House’s request.
Burr and Nunes are, respectively, the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence committees. Both committees are currently leading the ongoing investigation into the alleged links.
There are currently three investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign.
The House investigation
One of those investigations is going forth in the House Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Devin Nunes.
Nunes was an early Trump ally and a member of his official transition team. In the days since the Washington Post report about his calls on the administration’s behalf, he has repeatedly defended himself as having done nothing wrong.
“I felt I had something to share that didn’t breach my responsibilities to the committee in an ongoing investigation,” Nunes told the Post for their original report.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Nunes said he didn’t see any issue with the White House connecting reporters to the members of Congress currently conducting an investigation — nor any issue with the White House asking the FBI to publicly knock down stories about an ongoing investigation, a request Sean Spicer made before he asked the lawmakers.
Nunes, on Saturday, likened the news reports and ongoing investigation to McCarthyism.
“This is almost like McCarthyism revisited,” he told reporters, calling the investigation and calls for a special prosecutor a “witch hunt.”
“At this point, there’s nothing there,” Nunes said. “We can’t go on a witch hunt against the American people, any American people who have not had any contact, just because they appeared in a news story.”
The Senate investigation
Like in the House, the Senate investigation is going forth within the Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Richard Burr.
Burr has not responded to the recent reports, but Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, put out a statement saying that he had “grave concerns” about the news.
“I have called Director Pompeo and Chairman Burr to express my grave concerns about what this means for the independence of this investigation and a bipartisan commitment to follow the facts, and to reinforce that I will not accept any process that is undermined by political interference,” he said.
Though Warner stopped short of calling for an independent investigation, he left the door open: “I have said from the very beginning of this matter that if [the standing committee] cannot conduct an independent investigation, I will support empowering whoever can do it right.”
Warner has previously maintained that the Senate Intelligence Committee is equipped to handle the investigation in a bipartisan fashion independent of the Trump administration. In that, he’s out of step with many congressional Democrats, who have repeatedly called for an independent, bipartisan investigation.
The Department of Justice investigation
The third investigation, also ongoing, is being carried out by the FBI. The results of that investigation will be handed over to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who will decide what to do with them.
Sessions was a key figure in Trump’s campaign, and he has been a staunch ally of the president. He has also refused calls to recuse himself from the investigation.
Many Democrats have pointed to the conflict between Sessions’ close Trump administration ties and his duty to investigate that same administration, and said that Sessions should recuse himself.
There are also some cracks opening up on the Republican side: on Friday, House Republican Darrell Issa (CA) also said that Sessions should recuse himself, and invoked a special prosecutor.
“You’re right that you cannot have somebody — a friend of mine, Jeff Sessions — who was on the campaign and who is an appointee,” Issa said on HBO’s Real Time. “You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office.”
The need for an independent investigation
As it stands, all three men in charge of the investigations into the Trump campaign are Republicans, and two of the three are vociferous Trump allies. Burr, the third, also tied himself to Trump during his close 2016 reelection campaign.
Because the congressional investigations are being carried out in standing committees, the majority Republican party has enormous power over how they proceed. Burr and Nunes control how aggressive the investigation in their own committees will be and what it will focus on — including holding power over who is called as a witness, whether records have to be retained, and subpoenas.
So far, both men have been reluctant to attack the Trump administration. Instead of investigating the Trump campaign, for example, Nunes has recently indicated that he’s more concerned with the leaks themselves. Burr initially indicated that he thought the Trump campaign’s interactions with Moscow were outside the scope of his committee’s investigation, before reversing course as public pressure mounted.
Many Democrats, concerned by the clear ties between the men investigating Trump’s allies and Trump himself, have called for the investigation instead to be carried out in bipartisan, independent committees, which would equally distribute power over how the investigation proceeds.
Initially, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also called for an independent investigation. They walked back, however, after no other Republicans came forward.
Now, however, all three of the current investigations are surrounded by a cloud of suspicion, and tainted by the appearance of cooperation with the very administration they are investigating.
Some prominent Republicans are taking note, though thus far, none are the ones actually in power over the shape of the investigation.
“We all need answers,” former President George W. Bush said on Today on Monday. Though Bush stopped short of endorsing a special prosecutor, he said he’d support one if others recommended it — naming Burr as one man whose advice he’d take on the topic.
The 3 investigations into Trump and Russia are all hopelessly compromised was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.