On Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told Fox News that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should be held in contempt of Congress.
Nunes promised to press for that outcome this week after the Justice Department, citing national security concerns, declined to comply with a classified subpoena.
“Disclosure of responsive information to such requests can risk severe consequences, including potential loss of human lives, damage to relationships with valued international partners, compromise of ongoing criminal investigations, and interference with intelligence activities,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote in a letter responding to Nunes’ request earlier in the week.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democratic member on the House Intelligence Committee, spoke with Slate on Friday and described what he believes is behind Nunes’ confrontation with the Justice Department.
Schiff said there is a concerted effort by some of his colleagues to force the DOJ into an impossible bind by issuing subpoenas on classified topics. Those requests force the DOJ to either interfere with the Russia probe, by publicizing currently secret evidence, or reject the subpoenas, giving the administration a pretext to remove officials like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Indeed, President Donald Trump on Wednesday commented on the subpoena situation and issued a veiled promise to “get involved” if it wasn’t resolved satisfactorily.
Schiff told Slate his Republican colleagues have been complicit with the president’s efforts to undermine the rule of law. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jeremy Stahl: Did you read the Politico report “Trump’s Russia Strategy: Bash Mueller to Beat Impeachment?”
Adam Schiff: No, I haven’t read that. Just judging from the headline, I’m not at all surprised if that’s the White House strategy. And they have plenty of allies in Congress that are helping them in that strategy. From the very beginning of our investigation, they decided that the best way to protect the president was by putting the government on trial. It’s a tactic I saw when I was a prosecutor. If the evidence is increasingly incriminating to the defendant, you put the government on trial.
So they began with a conspiracy theory about unmasking, that was part of the Chairman [Devin Nunes]’ midnight run. When that didn’t pan out, then they turned to [an alleged] conspiracy within the FBI involving Carter Page, and when that didn’t pan out they turned to the next phase, which is attacking the initiation of the investigation. Right now, they’re in the process of picking an endless series of fights with Rod Rosenstein, in the hope that if they can keep asking for things until they get to something Rod Rosenstein can’t turn over to the Congress, because it would interfere with the investigation, then it would give the president a pretext to fire him and replace him with someone pliable who will do the president’s will. The president is tweeting his attacks on Mueller, and I think it’s a two-pronged strategy: One that tries to lay the predicate to fire Mueller’s boss as a way of putting someone in who can kneecap the investigation privately outside of the public view by telling Mueller, “You can’t look into certain things.” But if all else fails, then so discrediting the investigators that no matter what they produce, they can cast doubt on it.
You’re basically saying that your colleagues are hoping to force Rosenstein’s hand to either give away evidence that will interfere with the investigation and make public that evidence, or refuse them in a way that would lead them to claim that Rosenstein should be impeached.
Without a question. Most recently they asked for the Comey memos, and they were quite indignant in not getting the Comey memos. What they didn’t reveal, of course, is that we had already had access to the Comey memos. I had already read the Comey memos, and the chairman already had the opportunity to read the memos. Now, whether he took the opportunity or not—the chairman seems to ask for a lot of things and demand them and then not read them—but we already had access, so we knew that the Comey memos were completely consistent with the director and what he was saying in his testimony.
They were hoping for a fight, and they didn’t get it. The Justice Department decided, “OK, we’ll give you the memos.” So then they moved onto the next fight, “OK, we want to see the document in unredacted form that initiated the investigation.” And they were hoping for a fight on that, because that’s even more sensitive. And ultimately, the Justice Department relented again, and they didn’t get their fight. Now they’ve moved onto other things and the goal is to keep asking until they can force the Justice Department to say no. You already saw the president in lockstep say, “Why won’t the Justice Department give the Congress what it’s asking for, what are they hiding? I said I wasn’t going to be involved, but I might have to get involved.” It’s a clearly choreographed effort to give the president and his team a pretext to fire Rod Rosenstein. When this chapter of history is written about our country, it will be damning of the president but it will reserve a special damnation for people in Congress that are complicit in the tearing apart of our institutions and undermining of our systems of checks and balances.
You said previously in an interview with NPR that the Republican members who sought to make these memos public were doing so because they wanted to find inconsistencies in Comey’s stories, but there ultimately were none.
They were, among other things, hoping that there would be some inconsistency that they could latch onto that they could attack Comey with. This both had the object of giving them more fodder to try to attack Comey, they hoped, but also, even if they didn’t get it, giving them a fight with the Justice Department that they wanted even more.
I’ve had my own pet theory about this. It seems to me that they’re trying to demonstrate that James Comey mishandled classified material. Do you think one strategy here is to try to argue that Comey shared information he shouldn’t have?
There’s an effort to tar anyone who’s a witness against the president. To tar Comey in any way, to tar him as a leaker, to tar him if they can make some claim that something in his memo was classified, to find an inconsistency, to tar [fired Deputy FBI Director] Andrew McCabe who corroborates Comey, to tar [FBI officials James A.] Baker or [James] Rybicki, who are also in a position to corroborate Comey. [Editor’s note: Baker resigned on Friday and on Monday morning the president attacked Baker by name on Twitter.] This is not by accident that they’ve singled out these people. They’ve singled them out because they corroborate evidence of potential obstruction of justice by the president. And it’s a scorched earth strategy.
Former chief of staff Reince Priebus also could corroborate portions of Comey’s memos that the president has contested.
And they’ll turn on him too if they consider him to be a threat to the president. But this is where they’re coming from now with someone like Priebus: They have to be concerned that if they go after him, he may know a lot that they don’t want him to share. So, that’s less of an issue with Comey and Rybicki and McCabe, etc. But they’re employing—the president’s allies in Congress, on our committee with the comments of [Rep. Mark] Meadows and [Rep. Jim] Jordan about impeachment—they’re employing a burn-down-the-Congress strategy to protect the presidency. It’s a strategy that says, “We don’t care what happens to the country. We just care about maintaining our majority and protecting the president of our party.” The most appalling realization to me of the last year and a half—it’s not been what kind of president Donald Trump turned out to be; it’s how many people in Congress have been complicit with him. That has been a bitter realization.