Lawmakers clamor for piece of Trump action on House Intel
Dozens of Republican and Democratic lawmakers are clamoring to join the House Intelligence Committee next year — for a chance to be part of a panel at the vanguard of the partisan brawl over Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The interest has veterans of the committee worried that a new class of lawmakers will reinforce the partisan impulses that drove the committee toward dysfunction the past two years. The politicization of the once sober, above-the-fray panel has undermined what some lawmakers and national security officials say has been a decades-long partnership with the intelligence community.
Republican and Democratic leaders have been compiling lists of dozens of members — one Republican lawmaker recently suggested upward of 70 on the GOP side — who want to join the committee. The demand for spots comes amid the ongoing partisan fight over the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether any of President Donald Trump's associates participated in it.“It has to revert back to the way that it was, sort of like the sleepy little classified committee that nobody ever hears about,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who joined the House Intelligence Committee in 2011 and is retiring from Congress in January. If the committee remains politicized, “it will be crippled," Rooney said, and “this country will suffer."
It's precisely the partisan warfare that's been attracting some rank-and-file lawmakers, committee members and aides say. These members suspect that hard-liners in both parties may look to the committee's unique relationship with the intelligence community to protect or punish Trump. And it'll be up to congressional leaders, they say, to ensure that the posts go to members prepared to keep partisanship out of the panel's work.
Democrats say that Republicans, led by Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), used the committee's powerful tools to mount a full-scale defense of the president. They point to GOP demands for documents from the FBI to undercut the Russia probe, and witnesses who weren’t subpoenaed even when they ignored questions or withheld documents. Democrats also argue that Republicans facilitated the release of classified intelligence in a misleading way, opening up a rift with the Justice Department.
But as Democrats appear increasingly likely to win control of the House, they're preemptively warning elements within their own party to avoid the same excesses they've accused Republicans of committing.
"How am I to explain on the Democratic side of the aisle why we do not demand the same things Republicans demanded when they were in the majority?" Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee's top Democrat, said at a national security conference last week. "Because we shouldn’t be in the business of trying to steer pending criminal cases any more than the White House should be.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), herself a veteran of the Intelligence Committee, is promising to push back against any efforts to politicize the panel if Democrats are in charge.
"If Democrats take back the gavel, that will be a top priority," said Pelosi spokeswoman Ashley Etienne.
Republicans are skeptical. They argue that Democratic leaking and grandstanding are to blame for the committee’s breakdown, and point to, among other things, Schiff’s affinity for going on TV. Schiff, a close Pelosi ally, is the heavy favorite to chair the committee if Democrats win the House. Republicans doubt that Democrats will be able to resist the urge to keep politics out of the committee, given the party's pent-up rage at Trump and limitless avenues of potential investigation.
Democrats have already laid out a potential roadmap of subpoenas for a revived Russia probe that could test their pledge for a return to bipartisanship. In a February release that excoriated Republicans for shuttering the investigation without pursuing all leads, Schiff issued a “partial list” of subpoenas that Democrats had asked for but not received.
On the list: Donald Trump Jr, and former Trump aides Hope Hicks, Michael Cohen, Corey Lewandowski and Steve Bannon.
Though the sniping has dragged on for nearly two years, it's a relatively new turn for the committee. Since its founding in the 1970s, HPSCI has enjoyed a reputation as a quietly effective protector of national secrets and security. Members drawn to it were primarily known as workhorses who didn't mind that much of the panel's work is secret. Partisan bickering was sporadic and kept behind closed doors, and as a result the panel has had a cooperative relationship with leaders of the FBI and CIA.
Even in the current Congress, committee members note that the panel was at times able to set aside internal rancor to cooperatively debate matters such as the reauthorization of the FISA surveillance program and matters related to the intelligence community's budget. Their weekly "hot spots" briefings, involving intelligence issues around the globe, have remained largely collaborative.
That's all the more reason, some lawmakers say, to prevent partisans from joining the panel.
"We don’t want brawlers in the sense of the guys who are going to point the finger across at other members of the committee and be divisive or be petty," said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), one of the committee's 13 Republicans. "We want people who want to fight for the country."
The Intelligence Committee is the only permanent committee in Congress whose members are appointed unilaterally by the Republican and Democratic leaders in the House, meaning they retain tight control over the committee's business and tend to appoint close allies to it. If leaders are serious about reversing the partisanship that's wracked the panel, committee veterans and intelligence community experts say, it will be most evident in next year's appointments.
"Serious-minded people, perhaps with experience in intelligence or military matters, are always a plus for the intelligence committees," said Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, in an email. "But the key virtue is suppressing partisanship. That used to be the criteria for appointing people to this committee."
Reconfiguring the committee will be particularly vexing for Republicans: Several of the committee’s 13 GOP members, including Rooney, are leaving Congress. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who has spearheaded some of the committee’s most sensitive work, is retiring. So are GOP Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Mike Conaway (R-Texas) will be term-limited off the committee unless they receive a waiver. And moderate Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) are in tough reelection campaigns.
The fight to succeed Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could color the GOP makeup of the committee next year, as contestants for the top post look to cater to conservatives taking a hard line against the FBI. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise have strongly backed Nunes' demand for sensitive documents. Scalise has said the Mueller investigation may be "becoming a witch hunt" and McCarthy has declared that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Trump, too, is likely to look to the committee's Republicans once again to defend against what some GOP lawmakers have described as a plot by former top intelligence officials to undermine Trump. On Thursday, Trump made clear that he views Nunes as a chief defender.
"If this turns out as everyone thinks it will, Devin Nunes should get the Medal of Honor," Trump said in a Fox News interview, referring to the Russia probe.
Rooney suggested that the committee has functioned best when it’s been stocked with lawmakers with backgrounds in the military or law enforcement. He noted that he’s a former U.S. Army judge advocate, Stewart a former Air Force pilot, Gowdy a former federal prosecutor, and Hurd a former CIA officer.
Rooney says he's retiring next year in part because he is term-limited from serving on the committee again. He said until this year’s partisan fiasco, it was the most rewarding work he’d done in Congress. In fact, Rooney said, he might have even run for reelection "if there was a path for me to be chairman" -- if Nunes had decided to lead a different committee, for example, or had been term-limited himself.
Nunes has previously argued that the committee's reputation for comity is overblown — there was plenty of infighting in the run-up to the Iraq War, he said — and that its smoother relationships in earlier years were the result of too manylawmakers with ties to the intelligence community.
"The fewer people you have who come from the agencies or the area that’s represented, the better off you are to oversee them," he told National Review in March.
Aides in both parties noted that the partisanship of the committee is likely to hinge on whoever leads it in the next Congress, and whether they proactively decide to turn down the temperature. In fact, Schiff and Nunes, once made that decision before Trump took office.
“I would like to thank Mr. Schiff, my ranking member, who has been just a pleasure to work with over the last couple years,” Nunes said in a Nov. 30, 2016 speech on the House floor as he hailed a “strong bipartisan” bill reauthorizing intelligence programs.
On the Democratic side, lawmakers said Pelosi’s longtime stewardship of the committee would bode well for a return to normalcy.
“She takes that work exceedingly serious,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), one of the panel’s nine Democrats, who tried three times to be appointed to the panel and was “thrilled” when it happened. “It is a point of pride.”