By Matthew Schofield
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee was negotiating with James Comey for access to classified documents dealing with Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election when he was fired as FBI director, a committee member has told McClatchy.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said Wednesday that it was unclear to her whether Comey’s dismissal will further delay the House committee’s access to the documents.
But the disruption of talks about access to classified materials was one of the effects of Comey’s abrupt dismissal on Congress’ probes into the possible connections between the Russian interference in the U.S. election and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The congressional probes, which have few resources of their own, are highly dependent on the FBI for assistance.
“We were negotiating with him for access to some intelligence,” Speier said. “I worry that we’ll be put on the back burner. It could very well slow down the investigation.”
At the very least, she noted that the search for a new director likely would take months and that until then the committee will be turning to a caretaker for evidence. She called Comey’s firing “tantamount to tampering with evidence.”
The impact of Comey’s firing on the congressional investigations is one of the unpredictable aspects of Trump’s decision Tuesday to dismiss the FBI director, who was four years into a 10-year term when he was sacked.
There are at least eight congressional investigations into Russian interference in the election; in addition to the House Intelligence Committee, investigating committees include the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Government Oversight Committee, a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Democrats on the Senate Homeland.
Even so, members of Congress pledged Wednesday to continue their work, though they worried how the dismissal might delay probes already plagued by too few resources.
As if to make the point, the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday issued its first subpoena in more than 15 years, demanding that Trump’s former national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, deliver documents “relevant to the committee’s investigation” that he’d refused to surrender voluntarily last month.
It was the first subpoena the committee had issued since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“Multiple federal entities are currently and independently conducting Russia investigations, working together to uncover all of the facts,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. “I have no reason to believe they won’t. I also do not believe that the director’s dismissal will affect how the FBI carries out its investigations.”
According to news reports, a federal grand jury in Virginia also has issued subpoenas for documents from Flynn’s business associates, though those subpoenas were issued before Comey’s firing.
Flynn has become the center of the investigations, with former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testifying this week that she met twice with White House counsel Donald McGahn in late January to warn the Trump administration that Flynn was lying about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn was fired 18 days later, after Yates’ meeting with McGahn was reported by The Washington Post.
Yates also was supposed to testify before the House Intelligence Committee March 28, but that hearing was canceled by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., days after Comey stunned the nation by announcing that a probe had been opened into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia since last July. Her appearance has yet to be rescheduled.
Whether Comey’s firing will knock those plans off kilter remains to be seen. Comey had been scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, but his position will now be taken by the FBI’s new acting director, Andrew McCabe.
But Comey is expected to make a new appearance before the panel, perhaps as soon as Tuesday, and members of Congress and aides tried to convey that little will change in their investigations.
“This is a White House that is deeply, deeply worried about the Russia investigation,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate last year. “Certainly, there’s an effort to obstruct the investigation.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a member of his chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said he expected his committee to try to determine what precisely happened before President Donald Trump fired Comey after first requesting a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“We need to know where this move to fire Comey began,” Whitehouse said.
Also likely to come up in congressional probes is whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions had violated his pledge to remain aloof from the Russia probes by joining Rosenstein in an Oval Office meeting with Trump on Monday to discuss Comey’s future.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that he spent Tuesday night re-examining the letter Sessions had signed when he removed himself from the Russia investigation. He said he believed Sessions had violated the intent of the letter.
He called for Comey to appear soon before the intelligence committee in a public session.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she also believed Sessions had violated his pledge to stay out of the Russia probe.
“An attorney general who has recused himself from an investigation has now recommended that the head of that investigation be removed,” she said in an email.