The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee says he has seen "no evidence" that former national security adviser Susan Rice may have improperly surveilled then-President-elect Donald Trump or his aides during the transition.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly on Thursday that he and his committee would pursue the evidence in their investigation wherever it leads, but that so far nothing substantiates the White House's Rice storyline.
"I have not seen any evidence or any indication of [anything] improper," Warner said. "But again, these are serious accusations against people affiliated with the Trump campaign. I have to treat the accusations that are made by the Trump administration officials as serious as well until we can actually get to the bottom of this and look at the facts."
Even so, Warner said, the Trump White House has fallen into a pattern of responding to criticism or inconvenient news with sometimes extreme countercharges.
"Boy oh boy, there's a lot of smoke," he said. "You've got this administration which seems to try to deflect any story with some other outrageous claim, whether it be that the Obama administration somehow hacked into you, or you listened in on the Trump folks, or other claims that are, that have been outrageous about millions of unregistered voters voting."
Republicans do not call it "outrageous" that Rice might have been involved in potentially asking for Americans to be "unmasked" in classified reports about legal surveillance of foreign targets — including potentially of Trump or his aides. That must be the subject of the ongoing investigations, they argue, since they say there are indications the practice might have gone on for years and amounted to a political snooping operation.
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes of California, revealed last month that Trump and his campaign aides might have been swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign targets during the presidential election. What's more, he charged, the White House may have inappropriately asked intelligence agencies to reveal the identities of the Trump aides so that the Obama team could keep tabs on them.
Nunes learned about these practices from officials in the Trump administration, and then announced them, and then publicly visited the White House because, he said, he needed to brief Trump about them. Nunes did not share the original materials or what he knew with the other members of his committee, which caused its investigation to stall.
On Thursday, Nunes announced he had been the subject of accusations to the House Ethics Committee related to the White House episode, ones he called baseless. But rather than attempt to fight them and carry on with the Russia investigation, Nunes said he would recuse himself from that process while staying on as chairman of the full committee.
In his statement, Nunes characterized the Rice eavesdropping storyline as the most urgent thread to follow.
"The charges [against Nunes] are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power," he said.
The House Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, praised Nunes' recusal. And in the Senate, both Warner and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina said they thought it was appropriate.
Warner told NPR he thought Nunes' behavior has been "bizarre, to say the least," but he repeated that he and Burr were committed to working together in a less dramatic fashion and would continue to stick together as the inquiry goes on. Americans deserve a credible accounting of the interference in last year's election, including all the people who might have been involved with it, he said.
"This is why ... our effort has to be bipartisan — nonpartisan in a more ideal sense," Warner said. "Tensions and feelings are so high among so many Americans on both sides of this debate."