House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes showed no sign of buckling beneath growing Democratic demands Tuesday that he recuse himself from a probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, as the White House blasted the media anew over what officials say is its obsession with alleged Trump campaign connections to Moscow.
The inside of Mr. Nunes‘ Capitol Hill office hummed with serious intensity late Tuesday, but nobody knew exactly where the seven-term California Republican congressman had gone after making headlines early in the day by repeatedly dismissing the calls for his removal over his handling of the probe.
Mr. Nunes, whose impartiality has come under heightened scrutiny amid revelations he went behind the backs of committee Democrats and Republicans to a still-mysterious secret White House meeting on Russia last week, told reporters that his committee’s investigation “continues” despite the political hysteria surrounding it.
“It’s the same thing as always around this place — a lot of politics, people get heated, but I’m not going to involve myself with that,” he said.
While even some high-level GOP lawmakers were among those questioning Mr. Nunes‘ objectivity and ability to lead Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and the White House all appeared to be standing behind the California Republican.
Mr. McConnell shot down any suggestion the situation has grown so acrimonious that an independent commission is needed to take over the probe into Russian meddling and alleged Trump-Moscow contacts — allegations the FBI is also investigating.
“It is not necessary,” the Kentucky Republican said, adding he’s confident a parallel probe by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will play out along “a bipartisan basis” and get to the bottom of “exactly what happened.”
Republicans also stress the probe should look into charges of improper handling of intelligence data and of a string of leaks of classified data that have targeted the Trump campaign and the new administration.
The majority leader’s comments came after news broke that Mr. Nunes had abruptly canceled a series of House intelligence committee meetings on Russia originally slated for this week — and a day after the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, openly called for his Republican colleague’s recusal from the probe.
Mr. Schiff went further Tuesday, suggesting via Twitter that the White House was using Mr. Nunes as a puppet by getting him to cancel this week’s hearings because top administration officials did not want former acting Attorney General Sally Yates to testify.
Ms. Yates was poised to appear before Tuesday’s canceled hearing for testimony on events leading up to the firing of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his attempts to cover up conversations that he had with Russia’s ambassador to Washington. Former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and former CIA Director John O. Brennan were also supposed to testify.
While the White House did not respond explicitly to Mr. Schiff’s insinuations, officials expressed outrage Tuesday at a report by The Washington Post, which claimed the administration had sought to block Ms. Yates — who was fired in late January by Mr. Trump after refusing to defend his executive order on immigration — from testifying.
In a statement, the White House called the Post article “entirely false” and asserted that the administration took “no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying,” while the Justice Department “specifically told her that it would not stop her.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer then tore into the news media at Tuesday’s daily press briefing, lambasting reporters for their persistent focus on Mr. Trump and Russia — and asserting that the press had consistently misreported the story.
“If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection,” an exasperated Mr. Spicer said. “At some point, you’re going to have to take ‘no’ for an answer.
“There’s no connection between the president and the staff here doing anything with Russia,” he added.
The reproach fit with Mr. Trump’s own personal attempts to shift the narrative around the Russia investigation with a series of tweets Monday night that said the “Russia story is a hoax” and that the real focus should be Bill and Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Moscow.
“Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia?” the president tweeted.
Despite Mr. Trump’s tweets, Mr. Nunes‘ actions have dominated attention since last week, when the congressman briefed Mr. Trump and held an impromptu press conference on the White House lawn to announce that U.S. intelligence agencies had inadvertently spied on and “unmasked” Mr. Trump’s associates during its surveillance of foreign surveillance targets.
That claim became explosive after it was discovered Mr. Nunes only learned of the suspected abuses when he met with an as-yet-unnamed “source” on the grounds of the White House who showed him the surveillance intelligence.
Mr. Schiff and other Democrats on the House intelligence committee say its outrageous that Mr. Nunes participated in the meeting without telling them.
Mr. Nunes counters that he had to review the classified, executive branch documents from a secure facility at the White House in secret because it had not been provided to Congress and could not be transported to facilities used by the House intelligence committee.
The congressman has so far refused to name who he met on the White House grounds or who invited him for the meeting, although he has described the source as an intelligence official, not a White House official.
But his handling of the entire episode has prompted some influential Republicans to echo Democratic talking points on Tuesday.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Mr. Nunes “absolutely” should reveal his source and that there is “a lot of explaining to do.”
“I’ve been around for quite a while, and I’ve never heard of any such thing,” Mr. McCain said on CBS.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and a longtime ally of Mr. McCain, said on NBC that Mr. Nunes has “gone off on a lark by himself, [on] a sort of Inspector Clouseau investigation here.”
Public opinion on the controversy is flowing in Mr. Nunes‘ Republican-leaning Central California district, which covers the rural Central Valley around Fresno and Tulare counties.
The hometown Fresno Bee, which supports Democrats, recently ran an editorial calling Mr. Nunes a “paper tiger” who talks a big game but fails to take political risks as intelligence committee chairman.
“He will shine a bright light into dark corners on behalf of San Joaquin Valley farmers,” they wrote. “But when there is the potential to embarrass an ally such as President Donald Trump, his flashlight suddenly is out of batteries.”
Fellow Republicans on the House intelligence panel, however, are sticking with their chairman, and say Mr. Nunes is trying to carry out a balanced investigation of a multifaceted scandal in the midst of a partisan hurricane.
“We’re ready to get to work,” while the Democrats are the ones playing politics, Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican and a member of the House select panel on intelligence, told CNN Tuesday evening.
And some in his district say they appreciate the power the former dairy farmer has amassed in the House, in addition to his close ties to the president.
Popular California political talk radio host Brett Winterble said his listeners see the story from a very different viewpoint.
“Lots of folks here are rock-ribbed conservatives with ties to the military,” Mr. Winterble said in an interview from his studio just before going on air Tuesday.
“The president has a larger reservoir of good will for the people who voted for him,” he said. “They see this as something of a witch hunt.”
• Staff writers Dave Boyer and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.
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