It was late March, and Michael Bahar was being blocked from entering the White House, the latest in a series of surreal moments that month for the then-Democratic staff director of the House Intelligence Committee.
Bahar was not on the Secret Service’s list of approved visitors. But his boss, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, refused to go in without him, “figuring that once he was in without me it would have been harder to get me in,” Bahar said.
He and Schiff made some calls, and the Secret Service eventually waved both of them through. But that was just the first of their troubles that would culminate in an Oval Office confrontation between Schiff and President Donald Trump.
Bahar recounted his experiences in his first wide-ranging interview since leaving the committee at the end of May for a job with the law firm Eversheds Sutherland.
Bahar has had an unparalleled view of the secretive House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling, including the bickering between Schiff and House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that captured the nation’s attention and almost derailed the panel’s efforts.
His departure from the committee was long planned, but he said it was still hard to let go, describing the committee’s investigation as the “successor to Watergate.”
“This is in a sense having to step aside from history,” he said of his move to run the firm’s cybersecurity and data-protection practice.
He stayed with the committee for an extra six months, he said, to ensure the Russia probe “got off its feet” to its next phase — conducting witness interviews and depositions.
Those extra six months were both rewarding and at times sad, he said, especially for longtime staffers who take pride in the committee’s reputation for bipartisanship. The breakdown in relations between Schiff and Nunes, who had previously worked together to pass major legislation, left both the majority and minority staffs — who share office space and have forged strong ties over many years — feeling shaken, according to Bahar.
“For those people that had been around the longest, I think there was — I would describe it as sadness through this, because this is not what we’re used to,” Bahar said.
But Bahar, who previously spent nearly a decade on active duty as a Navy lawyer and was a deputy legal advisor to the National Security Council in the Obama administration before first joining the House Intelligence Committee in 2012 as general counsel, said he is optimistic about the investigation going forward. He praised Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who’s now leading the probe following Nunes’ decision to step aside, as someone who’s “truly trying to follow the facts wherever they may lead.”
For Schiff, Conaway and their counterparts in the Senate, the stakes couldn’t be higher: They are seeking to put aside their partisan differences and get to the bottom of Russia’s election interference and prevent a repeat in the 2018 midterms and beyond.
Bahar said he believes one of the most consequential questions facing investigators in the House, Senate and FBI — whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia — will ultimately come down to intent.
The “hardest part” of the investigation, he said, will be determining the motives of Trump campaign associates who have been less than forthcoming about their contacts with Russia, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Trump son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner.
“We know that there were people who didn’t fully disclose meetings with a foreign power,” Bahar said. “We know that there are people who didn’t reveal the sources of their income, foreign sources of their income. Was that because of a lack of memory, inability to fill out forms, disdain for the forms, or was it something else?”
Bahar noted that even before U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Kremlin sought to interfere in the election, the House Intelligence panel was investigating Russia and other countries, concerned that the United States was focusing too much attention on counterterrorism, at the expense of potential threats from foreign powers.
Schiff tried to sound the alarm about Russia’s election meddling during the election, teaming up with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last summer to send a letter to then-President Barack Obama urging him to declassify and release information about Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee.
After Trump’s election, Bahar said, it quickly became clear the Intelligence panel would need to launch a full-fledged investigation — one that would be conducted, as much as possible, in public view.
“This is literally an attack on the United States,” he said. “People need to know what happened and why, so it never happens again.”
But Schiff and Nunes soon began squabbling over certain aspects of the investigation — a situation that came to a head on March 22, when Nunes held a now-infamous press conference to accuse the Obama administration of improperly monitoring Trump transition aides following the election.
Nunes claimed a “source” had shown him evidence of the improper monitoring, and he trekked over to the White House to brief Trump on what he had seen, even though the information had not been made available to Schiff and other members of the Intelligence panel.
In the Capitol, Intelligence Committee staffers watching Nunes’ press conference were stunned. "There was “an air of disbelief as to what we were seeing,” Bahar said. “It was so out of character and so unusual, and it was so unclear exactly what was being alleged.”
Asked to respond to Bahar’s characterization, Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said: “We don’t discuss internal committee operations in the press.”
Nunes’ actions led to a complete breakdown in relations between him and Democratic members of the committee, who accused him of doing the bidding of Trump, then under fire for his unfounded claim that Obama had ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower.
Nunes’ story also quickly began falling apart. It turned out at least some of his sources were White House officials and that Trump aides had been caught up in what’s called “incidental collection” — something that’s routine and legal, and can happen when people in the United States communicate with foreign targets of U.S. surveillance.
In late March, the White House invited Schiff to come view the classified documents that formed the basis of Nunes’ accusations — documents that until then still had not been made available to any other member of Congress.
After being waved through by the Secret Service — their entrance was broadcast live on cable news networks — Schiff and Bahar ran into another problem. White House officials did not want Bahar to accompany Schiff while he read the intelligence documents — something that Bahar said violated longstanding practices.
“Even when things are at the Gang of Eight level, you always have a staff member,” Bahar said. “It’s really important for the members to have somebody they can talk to about what they just learned, so they can discuss, figure out the proper response, as well as take follow-up action.”
Schiff, who again refused to view the intelligence without Bahar present, was eventually called into an Oval Office meeting with Trump.
“The president got up from behind his desk and shook hands and said hello. He was very personable and said I did a good job,” Schiff recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “He said, ‘Are you getting everything you need?’ and I said, ‘Well, no, actually I’m not.’”
Schiff told Trump about Bahar being blocked, and Trump responded that he had no problem with Schiff’s staff director seeing the documents. Trump’s comment elicited groans from senior staff in the room, but Bahar was allowed in.
“It all worked out and the right conclusion was reached,” Bahar said. After his and Schiff’s visit to the White House, the intelligence “was opened up to the other leaders and then their staff directors and then it was opened up more broadly.”
A week later, Nunes stepped aside from leading the investigation after the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating allegations that he mishandled classified information.
Through it all, Bahar said, the Democratic and Republican staffs of the Intelligence panel stayed focused on the job at hand.
“Even during that period, as publicly tough as it was, the investigation was still ongoing,” he said. “The Intelligence Committee was still receiving tons of information and intelligence from [intelligence agencies].
“I know there’s a perception that things sort of stopped, but to be honest with you, it really didn’t, just because there was so much information coming in, so much information to absorb.”
Bahar also said he doesn’t expect the investigation to wrap up anytime soon, predicting it will go into next year.
“There are so many tentacles and so many rocks to look under,” he said. “And every time you look under another rock, you find some more rocks. I don’t think there’s a quick resolution to this.”