WASHINGTON — Democrats condemned House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes on Wednesday for going public with information about the possible incidental surveillance of President Donald Trump's transition team and said by doing so, Nunes was making it harder to conduct the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he's going to act as a surrogate of the White House, because he cannot do both," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
Schiff told reporters at an afternoon press conference that Nunes' actions throw "great doubt" on the committee's ability to conduct a thorough investigation.
“Right now the country is counting on us because in the House of Representatives, we’re the only investigation there is," Schiff said. "If we don’t do it, no one is going to do it. Now perhaps the White House would like it that way, but the American people I think want there to be a credible investigation.”
Schiff said there is still no evidence to suggest Trump was wiretapped by former President Barack Obama, allegations Trump made on Twitter earlier this month.
Nunes made his comments earlier Wednesday after briefing Speaker Paul Ryan and then he went to the White House to brief the president on the information because, he said, it pertained to him and had nothing to do with Russia. On Wednesday afternoon, Schiff said the rest of the committee members, from both parties, had not yet seen the information.
"You just don’t go to someone who is potentially the subject of an investigation” before you go to the committee, Schiff said on CNN after the press conference. Schiff compared Nunes going to the White House before briefing committee members to an investigator taking information and giving it “not to the grand jury, but to someone associated with the subject of the investigation.”
On the Senate side, members of the Intelligence committee expressed surprise and confusion at Nunes' announcement, saying they had not been briefed on the matter either.
Sen. Mark Warner, the vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said he had been in a secure room all day and didn't "have the slightest idea what's happening."
"I have not been briefed on this yet and as a matter of fact, I'm rushing back to my office right now to find out what the heck is going on," Warner said.
"There is no information that I know of about this, and if there is, it's likely classified," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "I gather he gave no substantiation, no evidence," Feinstein said of Nunes. "So it's just something that adds to a fire that's burning."
She said it was inappropriate for Nunes to brief the White House before committee members. "Highly problematic," she said.
At his press conference, Schiff said he was not prepared to say whether any of the information Nunes had shared had been classified, adding his biggest concern was Nunes not sharing the information with the intelligence committee and instead going to the White House.
But another Democrat on the Senate Intelligence committee said he also had concerns about the information Nunes shared being classified.
"It appears to me that this information is classified. That would be a very serious concern," said Sen. Ron Wyden. "I'm sure everybody is going to follow up and try to get into the substance of what he's actually talking about because I have no idea what that's all about."
"Let me put it this way: When I heard about the briefing, I said, 'that doesn't strike me as meeting the textbook definition of vigorous oversight', which is our job," he said.
At least one Senate Republican, John Cornyn, said he wanted to learn more before commenting.
"The allegations are very serious," Cornyn said, adding that he had heard Nunes' announcement on the news.
Schiff said the day's events made for the most concrete case for an independent commission like the one Democrats proposed months ago. Proposed legislation for a commission has largely failed to pick up Republican support except one member on the House side, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina.
In a statement, Rep. Eric Swalwell, a House Democrat on the intelligence committee and one of the cosponsors of the legislation on the House side, also reiterated his belief that a separate investigation is necessary. Republicans including Nunes have not supported it, saying it would be redundant since the intelligence committees are already investigating. Some Republicans have said too many committees are already investigating.
The commission would have resources and independence to investigate thoroughly, in the vein of a 9/11 style commission. Other Democrats, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have made a case of a commission being necessary for the sake of transparency.
"This commission is very different in that it’s a group of experts that can look at this in a different way and can then come up with recommendations to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s not really what the intelligence committee is doing. They’re just doing an examination of the facts, right, and to give hopefully, publicly announce some conclusion," Klobuchar told BuzzFeed News earlier this month.
Earlier this month, Trump tweeted that Obama had wiretapped him. The next day the White House called on congressional intelligence committees to investigate. Both committees have stated they have no information to support the president’s claims.
During the House intelligence committee’s first open hearing on Monday, FBI director James Comey said he also no information to support the president’s claims.