Suspense builds over FBI director hearing

FBI Director James Comey's appearance Monday before the House committee investigating Russian interference in the presidential election could put to the test a fragile truce between the panel's top Republican and Democrat.
 
Comey and National Security Agency head Adm. Michael Rogers are slated to testify in the House Intelligence Committee's first open hearing in the probe — a hotly anticipated panel that is expected to quickly divide members by party. 
 
While it's unclear how much the pair will be able to discuss openly, lawmakers are expected to be largely united in pushing the FBI director to resolve President Trump’s claim that he was “wiretapped" by his predecessor, Barack ObamaBarack ObamaConvicted ex-coal exec appeals case to Supreme Court Senate panel approves Scott Brown as NZ ambassador Official: Trump 'looking at' future of US sanctions on Russia MORE.
 
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But deep divisions over evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia have some predicting the delicate alliance forged by the panel's leaders — Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Adam SchiffAdam SchiffFlurry of leaks alarms US allies House lawmakers pitch ban on North Korean tourism Overnight Cybersecurity: Bad Russian intel may have swayed Comey's handling of Clinton probe | Apple sees spike in data requests | More subpoenas for Flynn | DOJ's plan for data warrants MORE (D-Calif.) — may be at risk.
 
On the surface, the two California lawmakers appear to have little in common, other than a reported mutual regard for the Oakland Raiders.

Schiff represents suburban Los Angeles and is a soft-spoken former prosecutor who chooses his words carefully.
 
Nunes comes from a deeply agricultural background and is known for his sharp and often colorful criticism — even of his fellow Republicans. 
 
In 2014, Nunes famously called Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashGOP lawmaker backs Dem push for Trump tax returns The Hill's 12:30 Report The Memo: GOP talk of impeachment highlights Trump’s troubles MORE (R-Mich.) “al Qaeda's best friend in Congress” over his vote on a key surveillance bill.
 
In a sign of how tense the relationship had become in the early stages of their investigation, the two lawmakers gave dueling press conferences in the same afternoon in February, with Schiff taking the podium in a last-minute appearance to rebuke the chairman.
 
Nunes had told reporters that he saw no evidence of collusion between Trump associates and Moscow, saying, "What I've been told by many folks is that there's nothing there." 
 
Schiff blasted the comments, suggesting the chairman was prejudging the results of the probe.
 
“When you begin an investigation, you don’t begin by stating what you believe to be the conclusion,” Schiff said.
 
Since then, Nunes and Schiff have appeared together at press conferences, standing stiffly at the podium, and have jointly signed on to requests for information from various agencies.
 
One of those joint requests, signed last week, effectively launched the exclusively Republican demand that the committee's investigation include leaks of sensitive information to the media — an obvious point of compromise on the part of Democrats.
 
Still, Schiff has consistently said that if the majority party attempts to block important lines of inquiry in the investigation, he will not be shy about going public with his grievances.

“The only way our investigation will have credibility is if we can reach a common conclusion at the end of the day on the core issues,” he told reporters earlier this month.

“If we get to the point at any time where I feel we can’t do that, where there are legitimate lines of investigation that are being walled off, then I will say so.”
 
Democrats on the intelligence panel say that there are clear points of division that could fracture the relationship, raising a scenario where Republicans refuse to subpoena certain witnesses or stonewall demands for documents the minority considers essential to the investigation.

“Considering the political pressures, the relationship [between Nunes and Schiff] is very good and very functional,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said Friday. “Inside, behind closed doors, we’re not being told no. Next week could be different.”

A second committee Democrat echoed Himes, calling Comey and some former Obama administration officials also invited to testify an “easy ask" while saying that the Nunes–Schiff relationship will almost certainly “be tested” over future requests.
 
“Taxes,” he said, referring to calls from Democrats and some Republicans for Trump to release his tax returns for congressional inquiries related to Russia. “This will not to me be a complete investigation unless we see his taxes.”

Schiff was more circumspect when asked if Trump's taxes were necessary to the probe, telling reporters, “I think we have a lot of groundwork to do before we ever get to that question.”

Lawmakers are also eyeing former national security adviser Michael Flynn as another potential point of conflict. 
 
Flynn was pressured to resign last month after media reports revealed he had misled Vice President Pence and other senior officials about the discussion of U.S. sanctions in a December phone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Nunes has defended the former intelligence officer, arguing that the U.S. surveillance that exposed the contents of his call to Kislyak is the graver concern than the call itself. But Schiff has said it is his “expectation” that Flynn will testify.
 
“If we can’t bring Flynn in, this investigation is going nowhere," said the committee Democrat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 
 
Democrats are also deeply skeptical of Nunes’s public relationship to Trump. 
 
He served on the executive committee for Trump’s transition team and in February agreed to a White House request that he rebut a media report linking Trump associates to Moscow, which came as the committee's investigation was already underway.
 
“A lot of us have had concerns with some of the chairman’s comments that he may not be looking at this in an objective fashion," Himes said.
 
Nunes flatly denied any tension between himself and the vice chair on Friday, describing the relationship as “good.”

“There’s no issue,” he told reporters. “I think you guys like to write about that, but I don’t think there’s any competing issue.”

Monday’s hearing is at least initially expected to become a referendum on Trump’s claim that Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential race. 
 
Both Nunes and Schiff have said that they have seen no evidence to substantiate the president’s allegation, with Nunes calling any literal interpretation of Trump’s tweets with the allegation early this month “wrong.”
 
Separate from that issue, lawmakers appear poised to take the panel in separate directions.
 
Democrats are expected to push for evidence of any connection between Trump campaign associates and Moscow — and demand to know whether Comey is investigating those reported links.
 
Republicans, meanwhile, will seek to reconstruct the original hack of the Democratic National Committee last year and ferret out the source of a series of media leaks like the one linked to Flynn. 
 
It’s also unclear how much Comey and Rogers, the NSA chief, will be able to discuss in the public setting, leaving open the possibility that many of the answers to lawmakers' more substantive questions will need to take place behind closed doors.
 
“I am concerned that this hearing will not be quite as instructive as a lot of us and a lot of Americans would want because so much of the information lives in a classified world,” Himes said.