Two US congressional staffers who travelled to London in July and tried to contact former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, were sent by a longstanding aide to Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee and a close ally of the White House.
The trip has brought back to the surface a continuing struggle for control of the committee’s investigation into Moscow’s role in the 2016 US election. The reliability of a dossier compiled by Steele, containing explosive allegations of extensive secret collusion between Trump and the Kremlin, is a key part of that investigation.
The two staffers turned up unannounced at Steele’s lawyers’ offices while the former MI6 officer was in the building, according to a report by Politico on Friday. But the committee’s leading Democrat, Adam Schiff, said on Sunday neither he nor his Republican counterpart had been informed about the staffers’ London trip.
A congressional official insisted, however, that the staffers were in London on official committee business. He said they had been told to make contact with Steele’s lawyers, rather than Steele himself.
The House intelligence committee’s staff director is Damon Nelson, who worked as deputy chief of staff for Devin Nunes from 2003 until 2014 and then as a senior adviser before moving in 2015 to the staff of the committee which Nunes chairs. Nunes was a member of Trump’s transition team on security and enraged Democrats by maintaining close contact with the president and making a secret visit late at night to the White House in March to view supposedly secret information.
Nunes stepped aside from the committee’s Russia investigation in April, months before the London trip, after becoming the subject of an inquiry by the House ethics panel into whether he disclosed classified information in a bid to discredit the Obama administration. Republican congressman Mike Conaway took over Nunes’ duties directing the Russia inquiry.
Schiff’s office declined to comment, and Conaway’s office did not reply to a request for comment. But Schiff said on Sunday that neither of them had been told about the London visit aimed at establishing contacts with a key witness.
Steele’s dossier on Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russian government was compiled in 2016, for a Washington research company, Fusion GPS, and commissioned by Trump’s election opponents, first Republican in the primaries, and then Democrat.
It was presented by Republican senator John McCain to the then FBI director, James Comey, in December, and has since been part of a wide-ranging inquiry into possible collusion, now under the control of special counsel Robert Mueller.
A congressional official insisted it would not be unusual for a committee staff director to organise a foreign fact-finding trip on his own authority.