When Rep. Adam B. Schiff convened the House intelligence committee’s first meeting this year, the California Democrat declared that his top priority would be restoring civility to a panel that spent the first two years of the Trump administration riven by deep divisions over the occupant of the White House.It hasn’t gone so well.
By the committee’s second public hearing, Mr. Schiff had accused President Trump of crimes and Republicans demanded his resignation as chairman, saying he was too biased to lead a panel that long had been a bastion of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
Six months into Mr. Schiff’s tenure as chairman, he is receiving mixed reviews for his work in trying to turn down the heat. Supporters say he has made significant strides in forging bipartisan consensus on cybersecurity and media manipulation, but his apparent quest to find a smoking gun to prove a Trump-Russia conspiracy offsets those efforts in the minds of critics.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller spent nearly two years investigating and found no evidence of a conspiracy between Mr. Trump or his campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and his hearing Wednesday could go a long way toward defining the committee’s reputation and character for years to come, analysts said.
Get the balance wrong, and the committee could lose standing among the very people it was created to oversee: the intelligence community.
“When oversight becomes overtly partisan and dishonest, the overseers lose credibility with the American people and also with the intelligence community,” said David Kris, founder of Culper Partners, a consulting firm and former member of the board of advisers for the CIA and the National Security Agency. “The resulting lack of trust provokes the question ‘Who watches the watchers?’ and also encourages intelligence agencies to be even more guarded and careful in responding to oversight requests.”
Stephen B. Slick, director of the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said the problems could even spill over into foreign intelligence cooperation, with allies worried that information shared or gleaned from joint operations “will be exposed for political purposes.”
Members of the committee say the situation has gone downhill since the 2016 election and suspicions about Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, then under Republican control and chaired by Rep. Devin Nunes of California, opened an investigation into Russian meddling. But Mr. Nunes’ actions, including accusing the Obama administration of spying on Trump campaign figures and viewing secret documents he refused to share with the rest of the committee, quickly poisoned matters.
Mr. Nunes had to recuse himself from leading the probe for months pending an ethics investigation that eventually cleared him.
Divisions within the committee ran so deep that Mr. Nunes proposed building a physical wall between staff on each side.
Republicans eventually ended their investigation with a report in April 2018. Democrats condemned the effort as a partisan whitewash, and Mr. Schiff described it as “fundamentally unserious.”
Mr. Trump’s public denunciations of the intelligence community and his disagreement over its assessment of Russian meddling haven’t helped matters, analysts said.
Even Mr. Mueller’s report, which did not find evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy, has been unable to stitch the committee’s comity back together.
If anything, divisions have deepened. Mr. Schiff says the nearly two-year Mueller investigation has left him with more questions, and Republicans insist that everything has been settled and it is time to move on.
“We have strong differences on Russia and had [them] from the start of the investigations. We have been able to work together in a nonpartisan way on a whole range of other issues on the committee, so that’s the good news/bad news about the committee over the last couple of years,” Mr. Schiff told The Washington Times.
“It’s hard for me to see our differences on Russia narrowing during the pendency of the investigation. We just have such different perspectives on our role as investigators, and so in that one area it is going to be hard to reach consensus.”
Those who are familiar with Mr. Schiff’s seat say the committee needs to work harder to forge consensus to maintain its role as an important voice in intelligence matters.
“The House intelligence train came off the tracks a couple of years ago, and trying to get things straightened out is not going to be an easy process. That being said, [Mr. Schiff] has not done what needs to be done to restore civility,” said former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican who served as vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“If Schiff really wants to restore the committee to the reputation it has had for decades, then he has to start at the top. He needs to put his arm around Nunes and say, ‘I’ll make a real effort.’ You don’t rehash something that has been a very contentious issue for two years, i.e. the Russia probe. You don’t undo what your predecessor has done,” Mr. Chambliss said. “That is pretty poor leadership.”
Former Rep. Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat who served on the committee from 1987 through 1995 and was chairman from 1993 until 1995, said there is a “general congressional dysfunction” that has infected the institution on a broader scale.
“You can’t put that on one committee or one chairman. I don’t think there is anything for Mr. Schiff to repair until Congress gets its act together and starts acting as a team,” he said.
He said the committee has improved under Mr. Schiff, but he and Mr. Chambliss said one additional step would be for Mr. Schiff and Mr. Nunes, now the ranking Republican, to start avoiding TV cameras.
Mr. Chambliss also suggested that Mr. Schiff could curtail his penchant for open hearings.
“The work within the committee is such that if you are doing your job, you have no business going on TV and talking about it because the things meaningfully done by the committee should not be talked about,” Mr. Chambliss said. “Both Nunes and Schiff are out there in public throwing rocks at each other and talking about things they really ought not be talking about.”
Mieke Eoyang, a former staff director for the intelligence committee and now vice president at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank, suggested that Mr. Schiff promote issues where a consensus is possible.
“They are looking at the budget and classified security issues, which are the bread-and-butter issues they need to focus on,” she said. “When you step away from the Russia investigation, there are common concerns and they work together. They are all drawing a distinction between the investigation and other things.”
Committee members can’t even agree on the level of disagreement.
Rep. Eric A. “Rick” Crawford, Arkansas Republican, said partisanship has damaged the committee.
“We are trying to address this,” he told The Times. “I was just talking to one of my counterparts on the committee, so we are working on this, but there is a whole lot of energy focused on Trump when we should be focusing on the threat matrix that exists around the world and what we are doing to oversee our intelligence community assets out there that are trying to keep our country safe.”
Others said things aren’t as bad as they might seem.
“I think the committee is one of the most bipartisan committees in Congress, next to Transportation and Armed Services,” said Rep. Andre Carson, Indiana Democrat. “Everyone takes their job very seriously. We all want to protect Americans even if our methodologies are different. We can agree that we need to protect Americans.”
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