WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, a key figure in investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, has volunteered to be interviewed by lawmakers as part of an increasingly partisan House probe of the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.
The chairman of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, on Friday announced the prospect of an interview with Paul Manafort, and Nunes cancelled a previously scheduled public hearing in which former Obama administration officials had agreed to testify about the Russia investigation. It was not clear whether Manafort had offered to testify under oath or in a public hearing.
Manafort volunteered to be interviewed the same week that FBI director James Comey confirmed the existence of an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into possible Trump associates’ co-ordination with Russia and just days after an Associated Press report revealed Manafort worked with a Russian billionaire with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago.
The confirmation of an ongoing FBI investigation was a blow to the White House, which has described the Russia probe as a ruse. And the new details about Manafort’s ties to a close Putin ally appear to contradict what Trump has previously said about Manafort’s connections.
In February, Manafort said he was never involved with “anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration.” Trump has used the denials to assert that “to the best of his knowledge” none of his associates has anything to do with Russia. But documents obtained by the AP reveal Manafort had sought work from a Putin ally and proposed a campaign that he said could “greatly benefit the Putin government.”
Nunes, a former dairy farmer from California and member of the Trump transition team, on Wednesday told reporters that an undisclosed source had shown him intelligence reports revealing that the communications of Trump transition officials were scooped up through routine surveillance and improperly spread through intelligence agencies during the final days of the Obama administration. After he briefed reporters, Nunes met with the president.
Democrats said Nunes’ loyalties to Trump appeared to outweigh his commitment to an independent, bipartisan investigation when he rushed to the White House to deliver the president information that Trump said vindicated him for his claims that former President Barack Obama wiretapping him. Comey, Nunes and other intelligence officials have refuted Trump’s claim, and the president has offered no supporting evidence.
“To take evidence that may or may not be related to the investigation to the White House, was wholly inappropriate, and, of course, cast grave doubts into the ability to run a credible investigation and the integrity of that investigation,” the committee’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, said Friday.
Previously, Nunes and Schiff had held joint news conferences. Now what are becoming daily briefings are being done separately. Nunes apologized to Democrats on his committee on Thursday and promised to share the information he had with them. As of Friday, Schiff said the information had not been provided.
Daniel Jones, former chief investigator for the Senate intelligence committee who now runs his own investigative advisory firm, said Nunes’ handling of all of this has been “bizarre.”
“One of the key priorities of any investigation is to maintain its legitimacy and integrity,” Jones said. “You simply can’t have the chairman of the investigation reporting to one of the possible targets of the investigation.”
Schiff said cancelling Tuesday’s hearing was a “serious mistake,” especially, he said, after Americans benefited so much from the committee’s hearing on Monday.
That hearing, Schiff said, “gave the public a real glimpse at why this is so significant, but we also heard for the first time that the FBI is doing a counterintelligence investigation that involves associates of the Trump campaign.”
Nunes’ office said the White House had “no input in the decision” to cancel Tuesday’s hearing in which the former directors of national intelligence and the CIA and the former acting attorney general had already agreed to publicly testify. Nunes’ spokesman, Jack Langer, said the cancellation was more of a postponement and done because “we have additional questions arising from Monday’s hearing” that lawmakers wanted to ask in a classified setting. A new date has not been set.
In the committee’s first hearing, Manafort’s name came up 28 times. Later that day, White House spokesman Sean Spicer tried to downplay Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign. On Thursday, the AP reported that the U.S. government obtained records of offshore financial transactions involving Manafort as part of a federal anti-corruption probe into his work in Eastern Europe.
In a statement released Friday, Manafort’s spokesman, Jason Maloni, said Manafort had agreed to talk with House committee members to specifically “provide information voluntarily regarding recent allegations about Russian interference in the election.” When asked whether Manafort would agree to be interviewed about his past work as a political consultant in eastern Europe, Maloni said that the interview would be about Russian interference in the election.
Manafort, who was working in 2005 as a political consultant in Ukraine, pitched a wide-ranging political influence campaign to aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally, and eventually signed a $10 million annual contract, according business records and people familiar with the payments.
In a statement to the AP earlier this week, Manafort confirmed that he worked for Deripaska, but denied that the work had been to advance Russia’s interests.
Manafort is one of several Trump associates investigators are looking at for possible co-ordination with the Russians during the campaign. On Thursday and Friday, Trump adviser Carter Page and Trump associate Roger Stone volunteered to speak to the committee as well.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who has written extensively about separation of powers, said there has always been a “murky line” between Congress and the White House when they’re controlled by the same party, and he said he doesn’t think Nunes has crossed that line. However, the intelligence committees, Turley said, have always been seen as the least partisan, and it’s important that they maintain that reputation.
Barring the appointment of an independent commission, which Democrats continue to call for, Turley said that the House intelligence committee will play an integral role in producing an investigation the American people can trust. “It will not be able to do so unless it can maintain its independence from the administration,” he said.
Nunes on Friday said he shared the information he had with the president, because he thought it was the right thing to do.
He said, “There’s politics on both sides of this, and I’m trying to navigate as best as I can.”
Associated Press writers Jeff Horwitz, Deb Riechmann and Julie Pace contributed to this report.