In May of 2017, an obscure transcript surfaced quoting a rather revelatory conversation that took place between several GOP lawmakers in June 2016. Then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told then-Speaker Paul Ryan and others, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” referring to California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and the soon-to-be Republican nominee for president. As the others laughed, Ryan shut down the conversation quickly, saying, “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
That summer 2016 chat came on the heels of news reports that Russian government hackers had penetrated the DNC. But the Washington Post‘s initial report of the interaction came nearly a year later, the same month that former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe now says top congressional leaders were briefed about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Trump.
When Today‘s Savannah Guthrie asked McCabe Tuesday if any of those leaders took issue with the FBI trying to determine whether Trump was a Russian agent, McCabe bluntly responded, “No one objected, not on legal grounds, not on constitutional grounds, and not based on the facts.”
That means Speaker Ryan, along with his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the two GOP Intelligence Committee chairs, Rep. Devin Nunes of California and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, knew the FBI not only suspected Trump of being a Russian agent, but also had enough actionable intelligence to open an investigation into the matter.
In the meantime, Ryan’s office was fielding questions from reporters about what exactly he had meant a year earlier when he instructed his top lieutenants to keep it in the family, saying, “NO LEAKS” (as it reads in the transcript). In a statement, Ryan spokesperson Brendan Buck tried to pass off the exchange as a joke. “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor,” he said. “What’s more, the speaker and leadership team have repeatedly spoken out against Russia’s interference in our election, and the House continues to investigate that activity.”
Ryan, however, would go on to support chairman Nunes along with Trump’s entire House hatchet team—Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and others—in every harebrained scheme they concocted to dismantle that critical FBI probe. Whenever Nunes found a new reason to obtain classified documents related to the probe, Ryan was there for him.
In fact, Ryan didn’t just feed the monster; he helped build it. After Nunes charged in March 2017 that U.S. intelligence agencies had collected information on Trump’s transition team (following his bizarre midnight rendezvous at the White House), Ryan rejected calls for Nunes to step aside from the very Russia probe his office was touting as a bulwark to questions about his “keep it in the family” remark. “Speaker Ryan has full confidence that Chairman Nunes is conducting a thorough, fair, and credible investigation,” Ryan’s spokesperson AshLee Strong asserted. Nunes was ultimately forced to recuse himself anyway after a House ethics probe was launched into the matter, but he returned to head the Intelligence panel’s Russia investigation in 2018, despite continued questions surrounding his intentions.
When Nunes then threatened Justice Department and FBI officials early last year with contempt proceedings because they had refused to supply him with a broad array of sensitive documents related to the Russia probe, Ryan backed Nunes again in a private meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The agencies were subsequently left with no choice but to supply Nunes with the documents they worried could reveal sensitive intelligence operations to the world. Nunes then used the information to create an inflammatory and flawed report (aka the “Nunes memo”) alleging intelligence abuses, which Republicans on the Intelligence panel then voted to make public over the warnings of the intelligence agencies.
But that row was just the first in a series of Nunes transgressions. In an apparent effort to discredit the Steele dossier, Nunes allegedly leaked selected portions of the confidential testimony of Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson, who had commissioned the controversial dossier. (The full transcript of his testimony was later released at Simpson’s request.) Nunes then reportedly leaked text messages Sen. Mark Warner had sent, in his capacity as ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, trying to make contact with Christopher Steele, author of the dossier.
Nunes then began threatening legal action unless the FBI turned over the document that launched the agency’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties. Rosenstein and Wray again relented, allowing Nunes to view the document, a responsibility he delegated to GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, then-chair of the House Oversight Committee. In fact, Nunes hadn’t even read the material he used to create his infamous memo either.
By May 2018, Nunes apparently figured he could pretty much do whatever he damn well chose to do and decided to go for broke. He demanded various unspecified other sensitive documents related to the Russia probe from the intelligence agencies. God only knows what they were, but Ryan was right there beside Nunes again. “I think this request is wholly appropriate and is completely within the scope of the investigation that has been ongoing for awhile with respect to [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act],” Ryan told reporters at a press conference. “I actually think this is something that should have been answered awhile ago,” he added.
Ryan’s response came after the Justice Department had already been perfectly clear about how harmful a breach of the information could prove to be. “Disclosure of responsive information to such requests can risk severe consequences, including potential loss of human lives, damage to relationships with valued international partners, compromise of ongoing criminal investigations, and interference with intelligence activities,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs.
After another meeting between Ryan and senior officials at the Justice Department and FBI, the agencies started to release tranches of documents in June 2018 to the House Intelligence panel. Gowdy told news outlets that the agencies caved after Ryan “made it very clear” the House would use “its full arsenal of constitutional weapons to gain compliance” on any outstanding subpoenas.
In other words, in his capacity as House Speaker, Paul Ryan had employed the full weight of the powers vested in him to force the hand of the very agencies he knew were investigating Trump as a potential Russian asset.
Ryan’s record as House speaker was already abysmal from the basic standpoint of his dubious accomplishments as a public servant and his constant enabling of Trump’s reckless disregard for the office of the presidency. But his constant complicity in Nunes’ efforts to discredit and kill the Russia probe borders on treasonous, at the very least. Paul Ryan should be called to account and made to answer for his treachery.