House Intelligence probe is being undermined by partisan fiddling

WASHINGTON — The case has now been significantly strengthened for an independent commission to supplement or take over the congressional investigation into the intelligence findings of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has made it, perhaps inadvertently, by informing President Donald Trump of certain undisclosed surveillance by U.S. intelligence. His action hints of a partisan attempt to bolster Trump’s unverified claim that he was targeted by then President Barack Obama.

Nunes, a California Republican, did so without sharing his decision with Democratic members of the investigating committee. It led the ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, to charge that Nunes “casts quite a profound cloud over our ability to do the work” of the committee.

Schiff left no doubt about his implication that a fix was in, adding, “If the chairman is going to continue to go to the White House rather than to his own committee, there’s no way we can conduct this investigation.”

Trump himself seized the opportunity to grab Nunes’ political lifeline. Asked by a reporter whether he felt “vindicated” by what Nunes had presented, the president replied: “I somewhat do. … I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.”

Schiff cited the chairman’s failure to share the information with committee Democrats as grounds to call for an independent special investigation. Nunes in turn declined to disclose the source of the information he rushed to provide to the embattled Trump, who in an earlier tweet had fingered Obama as having wiretapped him at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

Only days earlier, FBI Director James Comey had told a House Intelligence hearing that he had “no information that supports” Trump’s accusations against Obama. Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, then peddled the notion that his boss had implied some other kind of surveillance may have been involved.

To Democratic suggestions that Nunes may have violated the law by revealing classified information to Trump, the chairman told reporters: “It looks to me like it was all legally collected, but it was a lot of information on the president-elect and his transition team and what they were doing.”

In any event, Nunes’ surprising initiative in taking what he had to Trump gave fuel to the suspicions of one of the president’s most consistent Republican critics and doubters, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He described Nunes’ action as “remarkable” and “bizarre,” and told MSNBC he agreed that while the House Intelligence Committee had been doing a good job, the circumstances now called for creation of a separate independent commission. “No longer does the Congress have the credibility to handle this alone,” he said, “and I don’t say that lightly.”

In all this, the question remains why the newly elected president would choose to continue to malign Obama in his presidential retirement, as well as to defend palpably false contentions about the vote totals in November’s election.

If his purpose is to divert attention from the early chaos of the judicial pushback against his rash immigration executive orders, and the legislative resistance to repealing and replacing Obamacare, he hasn’t been very successful.

When a Time magazine reporter in an interview took note of Trump’s falling approval rating in the polls, the president observed: “I guess I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president and you’re not.”

In addition to sounding incredibly childish, the remark seemed to reflect a continuing insecurity and need to strike out at any perceived slight, no matter how trivial.

It’s as if Trump needs to remind himself that he’s no longer playing a role on television but really is the president of the United States.

What millions of concerned Americans are wondering is when he will begin acting accordingly, as he faces the real-world challenges of the office he sought and won last year. He did a remarkable personal sales job on them then, playing Willy Loman with a smile and a shoeshine to ease their fears and anxieties.

But if Trump is to Make America Great Again, it will take much more than treating the presidency as if it were just another deal to be sealed with bluster and showmanship.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.a