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The White House is playing whack-a-mole with Russia investigations

It’s hard to scuttle one investigation when there are two others.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russia is looking more compromised every day. Yochi Dreazen has a great rundown of the bizarre recent behavior of the committee’s chair, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who sure seems like he’s bending over backward to protect the White House by canceling hearings and making odd, anonymously sourced claims.

But if Nunes and the Trump administration truly are trying to scuttle the House Intelligence investigation, they’re playing whack-a-mole. That’s because there isn’t just one investigation going on into Trump, Russia, and the 2016 campaign — there are at least three:

  1. The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation: supervised by FBI Director James Comey and the Justice Department’s deputy attorney general (Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself). Other federal agencies are apparently involved in this as well.
  2. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation: led by Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA). This investigation has been quieter so far, with committee members and staff doing most of their work behind closed doors rather than in public hearings.
  3. The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation: led by Nunes and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). This is the committee that called down Comey to testify at the beginning of last week and that’s now under fire for Nunes’s handling of the investigation.

Now, there could be more going on even than this — the Treasury Department is looking into former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s money, and, per the Associated Press, it’s investigating transactions in Cyprus. But those three appear to be the biggest ones.

And when the investigation is proceeding on three different tracks, it’s very difficult to stop all of them at once — as Nunes has discovered in the past week and a half.

Nunes appears to be working closely with the White House and structuring his “investigation” deliberately to help out Trump. So when the White House was struggling to defend Trump’s bogus accusations that Obama tapped Trump Tower, Nunes called down Comey to testify before his committee.

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reports that a senior White House official seemed to know a whole lot about what Nunes would focus his questioning on in advance of the Comey hearing, and signaled that Nunes would try to establish that at least some communications of people associated with Trump were swept up.

The problem was that Comey had his own investigation and his own ideas — and the headline out of the hearing was his revelation that the FBI really was seriously investigating whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. (The White House seemed completely blindsided by this, per Lizza.)

Afterward, Nunes seems to have reconsidered the wisdom of his “open hearing” strategy, and canceled one at which former Justice official Sally Yates was set to testify. But Warner has made clear that the Senate investigation will talk to Yates, so it’s not as if she can be totally muzzled. Once again, the existence of multiple investigations means that the stalling of any particular one may not matter all that much. And it means that Nunes’s ham-handed attempts to scuttle things often end up backfiring.

Headed to President Trump’s desk: legislation letting ISPs sell your browsing history to advertisers

Our daily politics news roundup will check in on several other big stories, so here’s a look at what else is in the news.

On Tuesday, the House passed a resolution to strike down an Obama regulation blocking ISPs from selling their users’ browsing data without their consent. Timothy Lee has more on the regulation here, but it’s already passed the Senate through the special filibuster-proof Congressional Review Act process. So now it’s awaiting Trump’s signature, and White House staff have recommended that he sign it into law.

The politics here are ugly. ISPs have been lobbying for this measure, and Republicans argued the underlying regulation was “unnecessary.” But as Politico’s Blake Hounshell asked yesterday, “Were there literally any voters who wanted ISPs to be able to sell their data?” Indeed, this is hardly what Trump campaigned on, and is a good example of how once a party is in power, there are many things that can cause it to gradually lose support and alienate some voters who were giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Mike Pence — not quite the most influential vice president ever

For most of American history, vice presidents have tended to become marginalized and miserable once in office, with John Adams calling the job "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,” John Nance Garner saying that accepting the post was "the worst thing that ever happened to me,” and Lyndon Johnson claiming that "being vice president is like being a cut dog."

But the past three vice presidents — Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden — have all been viewed as surprisingly influential. And during the campaign, it appeared that Mike Pence could join them, given that he had far more experience on the Hill and in governing than Trump, who seemed to care little about policy. (A New York Times report claimed that Donald Trump Jr., trying to woo John Kasich to the ticket, offered to put him in charge of all domestic and foreign policy.)

That ... hasn’t really happened. Trump and his top White House staffers (Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner, among others) have been the ones calling the shots, with Pence rarely mentioned as a significant player in internal deliberations. And while a new report from Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman generously describes Pence as a “steady hand” and “an effective, if not ultimately successful, wingman” for Trump on health reform, another anecdote is not so flattering (emphasis mine):

Some members of his staff privately admit that Mr. Pence got off to a slow start. Until his emergence in the health care fight, his main role was as a kind of Trump translator to foreign leaders and lawmakers who needed a conduit to the White House on appointments or arcane issues. One area of particular focus in the first two months: stripping protections for the sage grouse to ease development of lands in the West.

Now, that’s not to say that the sage grouse fight is inconsequential — E&E News’s Scott Streater has some good background on it — but it’s a rather low-profile thing for a vice president to be spending his time on.

Poll result of the day

In a reminder that when Trump makes an unfounded claim, many people believe him, a new CBS poll finds that 74 percent of self-identified Republicans think it is at least “somewhat likely” that “Donald Trump’s offices were wiretapped or under government surveillance” during the 2016 campaign. By comparison, just 21 percent of Democrats agree. Independents are about evenly split on the matter.

Keep an eye on...

President Trump is facing a defamation lawsuit from former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos, who back during the campaign accused Trump of sexually assaulting her several years earlier.

Now the Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Gershman reports that Trump’s lawyers are arguing Trump should be immune from the suit because he’s president — but the legal precedent here is unclear.

Basically, the Supreme Court has ruled that presidents should be immune from defamation suits related to conduct while they’re in office. But they haven’t ruled on whether they should be immune from defamation suits about conduct prior to their election.

This could go nowhere, but it could also conceivably have major implications. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Supreme Court ruled that Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit could go forward. This eventually led to President Clinton denying his affair with Monica Lewinsky under oath, which led to, of course, Clinton’s impeachment.

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