and Eric Tucker
WASHINGTON: Potential White House entanglement in Congress’ investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election brought new cries of protest from Democrats on Tuesday as fresh political allegations clouded the probe.
Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting one of the congressional investigations, turned aside calls to step aside.
Later in the day, the White House vehemently denied a report that it had sought to hobble the testimony of a former acting attorney general before Nunes canceled the hearing where she was to speak.
President Donald Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, lashed out at reporters, claiming they’re seeing conspiracies where none exist.
“If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection,” he suggested.
Three probes underway
The embattled House committee is conducting one of three probes into the election campaign, its aftermath and potential contacts between Trump officials and Russians. The Senate Intelligence Committee is doing its own investigation, and since late July the FBI has been conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s meddling and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
Nunes’ decision to cancel Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in a series of actions Democrats contend show his loyalty to Trump is greater than his commitment to leading an independent probe.
The California Republican, who was part of Trump’s transition team, has said he met with a secret source last week to review classified material that showed Trump associates’ communications had been captured in “incidental” surveillance of foreigners in November, December and January.
Nunes would not name the source, and his office said he did not intend to share it with other members of the committee.
Nor would he disclose who invited him on the White House grounds for the meeting. He described the source as an intelligence official. In an interview on CNN, he suggested Trump’s aides were unaware of the meeting.
Adding to the swirl of questions was the publication of a series of letters involving a lawyer for former acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
Yates, along with former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, had agreed to testify publicly before the House Intelligence Committee.
The canceled hearing would have been the first chance for the public to hear Yates’ account of her role in the firing of Trump’s ex-national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The letters from lawyer David O’Neil, published by the Washington Post, appeared to be in response to a meeting O’Neil had at the Justice Department on March 23 before the hearing.
In them, O’Neil pushes back against what he says is Justice Department guidance on what Yates could say about conversations she had with Trump — conversations the department indicated could be covered by executive privilege.
“We believe that the Department’s position in this regard is overbroad, incorrect, and inconsistent with the Department’s historical approach to the congressional testimony of current and former senior officials,” O’Neil wrote in a March 23 letter to Justice Department official Samuel Ramer.
Justice responded that the question of what privileged conversations Yates could discuss was ultimately up to the White House.