Closed-door testimony before the House Russia probe is supposed to stay behind closed doors. Somehow, it got into the hands of another witness—and key Trump confidante—instead.
On Dec. 19, 2017, a former staffer for Sen. John McCain named David Kramer testified before the House intelligence committee behind closed doors. He’d played a role in bringing the salacious and unverified Steele dossier to the FBI’s attention, and members peppered him with questions about it.
Then something unusual happened. Word of Kramer's testimony got out—to the lawyer of another witness.
The following, based on conversations with multiple sources familiar with the matter, illuminates the extraordinary breakdown of trust between committee investigators and the witnesses they call. It also suggests that some people working on the committee investigation may be trying to covertly assist one of the president’s closest allies—when the president’s inner circle is ostensibly a focus of their probe.
A few days after Kramer’s testimony, his lawyer, Larry Robbins, got a strange call. The call was from Stephen Ryan, a lawyer who represents Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen. Cohen is facing scrutiny from Special Counsel Robert Mueller and congressional investigators regarding potential coordination between Trump’s team and the Kremlin. He featured prominently in the Steele dossier—the document that Kramer handled—and is currently suing Buzzfeed for publishing it.
“Yes, Cohen did testify, and yes, we actually had the opportunity to ask him those questions. What we have not had the opportunity to do is determine whether he was telling us the truth”
— Rep. Adam Schiff
Ryan told Robbins he reached out because someone from the House told him that Robbins’ client, Kramer, had information about the Steele dossier that could help Cohen.
Robbins declined to help. Ryan then asked Robbins not to tell the House intelligence committee about their conversation.
Robbins told the committee anyway. CNN reported in February that Robbins wrote a letter to the committee complaining about leaks to another client’s lawyer. The Daily Beast can now confirm that this letter was regarding Stephen Ryan and Michael Cohen.
Michael Cohen is both the president’s longtime personal attorney and one of his most unflagging loyal admirers. He has a history of using every trick in the book—from intimidation to hush-money—to keep negative stories about Trump from coming to light, as The New York Times detailed last month. Cohen personally paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in exchange for her commitment not to discuss an affair she allegedly had with Trump. According to the Wall Street Journal, the future president did not reimburse Cohen for his efforts.
Emily Hytha, a spokesperson for Rep. Michael Conaway, who is supervising the probe, said witness testimony was not shared improperly. (The testimony was deemed committee-sensitive, according to a committee source, but not classified.)
“Any accusation that a witness's testimony was shared with another witness or their lawyer is unequivocally false,” she said.
Robbins and Kramer declined to comment for this story. Ryan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Witnesses who voluntarily testify before the House intelligence committee generally do so under assurances that members and staff will not share their testimony with the public or with other witnesses. Many witnesses are less likely to cooperate with sensitive Congressional investigations if they believe the information they share will get out publicly.
“Any time information leaks out that’s given to the committee behind closed doors—whether it’s classified or committee-sensitive or otherwise protected from public disclosure—it makes it harder for the committee to do its investigative job and get honest and open testimony from the witnesses before it,” said Jamil Jaffer, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and former senior counsel on the House intelligence committee.
This isn’t the only leak accusation leveled against House intelligence committee officials. The president has repeatedly skewered the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, for supposedly sharing sensitive information with reporters; it’s a charge that Schiff denies. Last week, The New York Times reported that leaders of the Senate intelligence committee believe House investigators leaked text messages that Sen. Mark Warner sent. Warner and Sen. Richard Burr, the Democrat and Republican who lead the Senate committee, met with Speaker Paul Ryan to share their concerns. Accusations of improper coordination with the White House have dogged House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), who was part of Trump’s presidential transition team, since the investigation’s inception.
“Any time information leaks out that’s given to the committee behind closed doors... it makes it harder for the committee to do its investigative job and get honest testimony from the witnesses before it.”
— Jamil Jaffer
Last March, Nunes suggested a whistleblower from within the intelligence agencies informed him that the name of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who subsequently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was improperly “unmasked” in internal reports. It subsequently emerged that Nunes was fed that story not by any whistleblower, but by White House officials close to both Nunes and Flynn—prompting an ethics inquiry into Nunes himself that briefly derailed his leadership of the Russia probe.
More recently, Nunes gave an evasive and equivocal answer to committee Democrats who asked if Nunes or his staff collaborated in any way with the White House on his memo, which presented a counternarrative on Russia highly convenient for Trump.
And committee Democrats have signaled that they still seek to verify Cohen’s testimony.
At a recent closed-door committee meeting on February 5, a discussion of the Steele dossier pivoted to an aspect of it concerning Cohen—specifically, ex-MI6 spy Christopher Steele’s claim that Cohen had visited Prague to meet with a Russian operative during the summer of 2016.
“All the evidence we have seen is that Michael Cohen has never been in Prague, never in the Czech Republic, and indeed, was in California with his son at a campus in California at a time when he was supposed to be meeting with this Russian agent,” said Peter King, a Long Island Republican, according to a hearing transcript. (PDF)
Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and former prosecutor, shot back: “Would you support subpoenaing Mr. Cohen’s bank records, travel records, communications logs, so we are not just taking him at his word but we could actually verify that through a third party?”
King said he would, but “when Mr. Cohen was here, he was under oath, and you had your opportunity to ask him then.”
Schiff replied, “Yes, he did testify, and yes, we actually had the opportunity to ask him those questions. What we have not had the opportunity to do is determine whether he was telling us the truth, because we have made requests to get documents, the subpoenaed documents, and the majority has been unwilling to support those requests to subpoena documents. When that is the case, then we have no way of verifying or disproving information.” (Schiff declined comment for this piece.)
The exchange happened weeks after Ryan contacted Robbins concerning Cohen’s testimony.