When Rep. Mike Conaway took over the House investigation into Russia’s election meddling a few months back, he privately beseeched members of the Intelligence Committee to stop yakking about the probe on TV.
It’s safe to say the Texas Republican’s warning — aimed at projecting some semblance of bipartisan integrity on a sensitive national security matter — was not heeded.
Just this week, the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, got into a Twitter spat with President Donald Trump over Schiff’s persistent presence on the airwaves. Other committee members, including Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), also do frequent interviews on cable news to discuss their views on the investigation.
And some committee members now say the rush to the cameras is one reason that tensions on the panel are once again flaring, reminiscent of the partisan sparring that nearly derailed the investigation in the spring. The intelligence panels in both chambers have historically been a refuge from Congress’ natural state of partisan sniping.
Schiff dismissed the complaints about his TV appearances, saying, “There’s a great public hunger for information about the investigation.” But Conaway and other members of the committee are repeating calls for lawmakers to be more judicious about going on TV.
“For me personally, it is unhelpful to the investigation for me to be out preliminarily giving my conclusions or anything like that, so that’s why I’ve chosen to not do that,” Conaway said in an interview, adding that it would be his preference for committee members to follow his lead.
“I’ve been trying to project an even-handed approach to this investigation,” he added. “I think it would serve the investigation well by waiting until all the facts are in, waiting until we write the report, to telegraph what my conclusion might or might not be.”
The latest round of recriminations burst into the open shortly after Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner testified privately to the committee behind closed doors on Tuesday. His appearance came as Congress has been probing whether anyone from Trump’s orbit may have aided Russia’s campaign to influence the election in Trump’s favor.
Schiff later complained to reporters that one panel member, Gowdy, had acted like a second attorney for Kushner in the closed-door interview.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who blasted Schiff’s comments as “horseshit” on Wednesday, said he rarely goes on TV to talk about the investigation, and when he does, it’s to talk process, not substance. In fact, he said, Intelligence Committee members are advised to avoid discussing the substance of the probe altogether.
“What are they doing on TV except raising their profile?” Rooney said.
For his part, Schiff has become a daily, sometimes hourly, fixture on cable news — leading to speculation he might be using his perch as the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel as a launchpad to the Senate, should California Sen. Dianne Feinstein decide to retire.
Schiff defended his TV appearances.
“If we conduct this investigation wholly in secret and at the end of it we throw open the doors and say, ‘Here’s our report, you have to take our word for it,’ the country won’t,” Schiff said Thursday. “So I view the public information component as very important.”
He added: “It’s very clear the president doesn’t want me, at least, talking about the investigation. But I don’t think his interests are necessarily the same as the public interest.”
Earlier this week, Trump used his own platform of choice, Twitter, to single out Schiff over his penchant for the cameras. “Sleazy Adam Schiff, the totally biased Congressman looking into ‘Russia,’ spends all of his time on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!” Trump wrote.
The Republican National Committee piled on, tallying Schiff’s TV appearances and estimating he’d been on for a combined 14 hours in recent months.
The return to partisan bickering followed a relatively serene period for House investigators. Conaway’s stewardship of the probe has largely cooled passions that nearly scuttled the investigation in the spring. He assumed control of the inquiry after Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) stepped aside.
Nunes, whose close relationship with the Trump White House stoked distrust among committee Democrats, relinquished the investigation after allegations that he mishandled classified information. He maintains the claim is unfounded and was lodged by liberal activists.
Asked on Thursday whether he believes all the TV appearances are detrimental to the investigation, Nunes responded: “I’m not going to comment on the investigation.”
The House’s turmoil stands in stark contrast to a parallel Senate probe led by Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and top Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia. Warner is more judicious about his television appearances, and his statements and remarks are often delivered jointly with Burr.
House Intelligence Committee members, including Democrats, have largely praised Conaway, and continued to do so despite this week’s flare-up.
“The committee’s functioning well. Mike Conaway’s doing a great job,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.).
Rooney agreed but said he hoped the suddenly sharper jabs subside quickly.
“We’re all politicians and we all know how to play that game," Rooney said, warning that Schiff’s criticism of Gowdy — if not a one-off — could “open Pandora’s Box.”
“We’re not going to just sit here and take potshots from Adam Schiff like he did yesterday with Trey — both honorable men — and it just go unanswered,” he said.