Two US congressional staffers who traveled to London in July and tried to contact former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele were sent by a long-standing aide to Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee and a close ally of the White House.
The trip has brought back to the surface a continuing struggle for control of the committee’s investigation into Moscow’s role in the 2016 US election. The reliability of a dossier compiled by Steele, containing explosive allegations of extensive secret collusion between Trump and the Kremlin, is a key part of that investigation.
The two staffers turned up unannounced at Steele’s lawyers’ offices while the former MI6 officer was in the building, according to a report by Politico on Friday. But the committee’s leading Democrat, Adam Schiff, said on Sunday neither he nor his Republican counterpart had been informed about the staffers’ London trip.
A congressional official insisted, however, that the staffers were in London on official committee business. He said they had been told to make contact with Steele’s lawyers, rather than Steele himself.
“It was an intelligence committee trip although going to meet with the lawyer was not the sole purpose of the trip. They were also there on other committee business,” the official said, but he added he could not describe what else the committee staffers were doing in London.
“Them being sent to meet with the lawyers was at the behest of the committee staff director,” the official added, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The House intelligence committee’s staff director is Damon Nelson, who worked as deputy chief of staff for Devin Nunes from 2003 until 2014 and then as a senior adviser before moving in 2015 to the staff of the committee which Nunes chairs. Nunes was a member of Trump’s transition team on security and enraged Democrats by maintaining close contact with the president and making a secret visit late at night to the White House in March to view supposedly secret information without telling other committee members.
Nunes stepped aside from the committee’s Russia investigation in April, months before the London trip, after becoming the subject of an inquiry by the House ethics panel into whether he disclosed classified information in a bid to discredit the Obama administration. The Republican congressman Mike Conaway took over Nunes’s duties directing the Russia inquiry. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, has since praised Conaway’s cooperation into investigating the links between the Trump campaign and Moscow, but has also complained that Nunes has continued to intervene in the investigation, despite his understanding to stay out of it pending the ethics inquiry.
The staffers were sent by an aide to Devin Nunes, chairman of the House intelligence committee and a close Trump ally.View photos
Schiff’s office declined to comment, and Conaway’s office did not reply to a request for comment. But Schiff said on Sunday that neither of them had been told about the London visit aimed at establishing contacts with a key witness.
“I wasn’t aware of it, and I don’t think Mr Conaway was either,” Schiff told CNN. “But the reality is we do want to meet with Mr Steele, would like him to come before the committee. If he’s not willing to do that, we’d be happy – Mr Conaway and myself – to go to London to sit down with him. He does have, certainly, very relevant information that would assist our investigation.”
Steele’s dossier on Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russian government was compiled in 2016 for a Washington research company, Fusion GPS, and commissioned by Trump’s election opponents, first Republicans in the primaries, and then Democrats.
It was presented by Republican Senator John McCain to the then FBI director, James Comey, in December, and has since been part of a wide-ranging inquiry into possible collusion, now under the control of special counsel Robert Mueller.
A congressional official insisted it would not be unusual for a committee staff director to organize a foreign fact-finding trip on his own authority.
However, Adam Blickstein, a former Democrat spokesman on the House intelligence committee, said he found that unlikely in such a sensitive investigation.
“In this specific scenario, I can’t imagine a staff director sending two staffers on this trip without the chairman knowing about it,” Blickstein said. “That wouldn’t pass the smell test.”
“I find the fact that they presumably spent taxpayer money to undertake such a hyperpartisan and unprofessional effort extremely troubling,” John Sipher, a former senior CIA officer said in an emailed comment. “There are normal ways to do this through our existing institutions, and their relationships with our British partners. This is bad on many levels.
“Republicans that are part of the House investigation should not be undertaking efforts without informing their Democratic colleagues,” Sipher added. “Not only is it unprofessional but it is impolite. Mr Steele was a professional who worked on important and compatible issues with the US. He deserves better than being ambushed by a bunch of hacks.”