Panel chief faces calls to recuse himself from Russia probe

Mr Devin Nunes at a press conference last Friday. He met a source on White House grounds to view secret reports, but said it was the most convenient secure location with a computer linked to the system with the reports.
Mr Devin Nunes at a press conference last Friday. He met a source on White House grounds to view secret reports, but said it was the most convenient secure location with a computer linked to the system with the reports.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Top House Democrats allege he's too close to Trump to be impartial

WASHINGTON • The House Intelligence Committee investigating Russian meddling in last year's US presidential election has scrapped all of its meetings this week. This comes amid growing partisan discord as top House Democrats called on the panel's Republican chairman to recuse himself over mounting evidence that he was too close to President Donald Trump to be impartial.

The demand followed revelations that the committee's chairman, Representative Devin Nunes of California, met a source on White House grounds to view secret United States intelligence reports, reported The New York Times.

The reports, Mr Nunes said earlier last week, showed Mr Trump or his closest associates may have been "incidentally" swept up in foreign surveillance by US spy agencies.

Mr Nunes cancelled a public hearing on the Trump campaign's alleged ties to the Kremlin yesterday to hold a private briefing with FBI director James Comey and National Security Agency director Mike Rogers, CNN reported.

That prompted an outcry from the Democrats, who wanted the issue to remain in public view. However, Mr Comey and Mr Rogers opted not to brief the panel amid the furore within the committee over how to proceed with the investigation.

Mr Nunes yesterday declined to answer directly a question from reporters on whether he would recuse himself from the panel's probe. "The investigation continues," he told CNN, NBC and other media outlets, reported Reuters.

NO NETWORKED ACCESS

We don't have networked access to these kinds of reports in Congress.

REPRESENTATIVE DEVIN NUNES OF CALIFORNIA

QUESTION OF INDEPENDENCE

I believe the public cannot have the necessary confidence that matters involving the President's campaign or transition team can be objectively investigated or overseen by the chairman.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF OF CALIFORNIA

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the committee's top Democrat, and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, suggested that Mr Nunes, who served on the Trump transition team, was too close to the White House to run an independent inquiry.

Said Mr Schiff: "I believe the public cannot have the necessary confidence that matters involving the President's campaign or transition team can be objectively investigated or overseen by the chairman."

In an apparent attempt to change the subject, Mr Trump on Monday night questioned why the House Intelligence Committee was not looking into connections between former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Russian officials.

Mr Nunes told Bloomberg that the meeting occurred on the White House grounds because it was the most convenient secure location with a computer connected to the system that included the reports, which are distributed only within the executive branch.

"We don't have networked access to these kinds of reports in Congress," he said.

In a related development, a Russian bank under Western economic sanctions, Vnesheconombank, disclosed on Monday that its executives met Mr Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law and a top White House adviser, during the 2016 election campaign, reported Reuters.

Weighing in on the issue, the Kremlin yesterday said the meetings between the bank officials and Mr Kushner and his company were "normal business", reported Agence France-Presse.

A US Senate Committee investigating the suspected Russian interference wants to interview Mr Kushner, who has agreed to testify.

Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee has asked the government ethics watchdog to review comments by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin plugging The Lego Batman Movie, a film one of his companies produced, for a possible ethics violation.

In a letter to Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub, Senator Ron Wyden said he was concerned by Mr Mnuchin's comments last Friday at the end of a live interview with Axios news website.

Asked by a reader for a movie recommendation, Mr Mnuchin said: "I'm not allowed to promote anything that I'm involved in. So I just want to have the legal disclosure, you've asked me the question, and I am not promoting any product."

"But you should send all your kids to Lego Batman," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Panel chief faces calls to recuse himself from Russia probe'. Print Edition | Subscribe