It was one bizarre week for Rep. Devin Nunes, Chair of the only committee in the U.S. House investigating the possibility that Russia handed the 2016 election to Donald Trump
Last Monday he gaveled open a hearing in which most of his GOP colleagues seemed more concerned with plugging leaks to the press than chasing down leads that Trump campaign and transition officials may have colluded with the Kremlin.
But he got one thing right: he provided a forum for FBI Director James Comey to confirm that there was “no information” to back up President Trump’s allegations he was wiretapped by Barack Obama and that the Bureau was, in fact, investigating possible Kremlin contacts with various Trump associates at the time Putin’s apparatchik’s were busy hacking the election.
Still, at the very infancy of the House probe, Chairman Nunes had already concluded that, “We don’t have any evidence …Trump administration or White House Officials coordinated with the Russian intelligence services.”
That was a slightly more circumspect declaration than the one he made a month ago when asked about Russian links to the Trump campaign and he said, “there’s no evidence of anything there.” That was February 27th, the same day he announced he wouldn’t subpoena the President’s tax returns. And why? Because, as he put it, he wanted to avoid “witch hunts” and “McCarthyism” in using the committee to probe possible Moscow-campaign ties.
But at Monday’s hearing Mr. Nunes went even further, accusing Director Comey of putting “a big gray cloud” over the Trump presidency. “The longer this hangs out there,” he warned, “the bigger the cloud is.”
THE RUSH DOWN PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE.
Two days later, breaking with all precedent for an intelligence oversight chairman, he held two press conferences that book-ended his unilateral end-run down Pennsylvania Avenue to brief Mr. Trump on what he called possible “incidental” coverage of the Trump transition team during a legal surveillance operation at Trump Tower.
In what seemed like a bold-faced move to provide cover for Mr. Trump, on whose transition team, he himself had served, Nunes later apologized to his committee members for blindsiding both the Democrats and his own staff, then backed down from the implication that his revelations somehow gave gravitas to Mr. Trump’s March 4th Saturday am Twitter storm.
The 45th President, under siege for his ham-handed bungling of health care “reform,” was grateful for the diversion. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found,” he told reporters, adding that he felt “somewhat” vindicated, even though at this point none of the committee members seems to have a clue just what “they” found, other than routine incidental intel swept up 24/7 by agencies like NSA that wouldn’t merit a visit to the House Commissary, much less two trips to the microphones on the same day.
BOLTING FROM A RIDE WITH A STAFFER
Then, after leaving his committee colleagues and the press head-scratching, we got some insight into what inspired Mr. Nunes flight to the Oval Office when Tim Mak filed a piece for The Daily Beast Friday night under the cloak and dagger headline, “Devin Nunes Vanished the Night Before He Made Trump Surveillance Claims.”
Citing “three committee officials and a former national security official with ties to the committee,” Mak reported that Mr. Nunes “was traveling with a senior committee staffer in an Uber on Tuesday evening when he received a communication on his phone,” then, after reading the message, left “the car abruptly, leaving his own staffer in the dark.”
CNN advanced the story Monday, reporting that initially Mr. Nunes was riding with a staffer and then, after receiving a message he exited and took an Uber to the White House grounds.
The next morning he convened the first press conference in a stairwell of the House and issued a Committee press release declaring that, “…on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition” and that “additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.”
Maybe he was upset because he saw his own name in the files. Whatever the Chairman’s motive, Adam Schiff (D-CA) the ranking member on the committee, later blasted him for what he described as “a dead of night excursion” in which Mr. Nunes apparently obtained or reviewed “some documents.”
“And it’s not just that he hasn’t shared them with Democrats,” said Mr. Schiff, “he hasn’t shared them with Republicans on the committee. All of us are essentially in the dark.”
Worse, said Schiff, “The chairman also shared this information with the White House before providing it to the committee, another profound irregularity, given that the matter is currently under investigation.”
Then, after throwing out the rulebook for intelligence oversight protocol Devin Nunes abruptly announced the cancellation of a public hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday in which the former Directors of CIA and National Intelligence were due to testify.
The most important person on the witness list for that session would have been former acting A.G. Sally Yates, fired after she warned that Michael Flynn, then White House National Security Advisor, could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
APPARENTLY CLUELESS ABOUT TWO KEY SUSPECTS
Devin Nunes’ wild ride this week may have done more damage to the House investigation of Russian election tampering than Guccifer 2.0 or a cadre of Kremlin-paid hackers could have done.
But we haven’t yet discussed his most jaw-dropping moment in the past six days.
That came Monday after the hearing when he responded to a question from Mother Jones D.C. Bureau Chief David Corn, who asked him if he’d ever heard of now infamous Russia-connected Trump associates Carter Page and Roger Stone. Both men would surely be key witnesses before any viable committee investigating alleged Trump ties to Moscow.
In fact, CNN reported Friday, that Page & Stone had each volunteered to talk to investigators in a public hearing – a move some saw as a White House effort to get ahead of this spiraling scandal.
But when asked by reporter Corn about the pair on Monday, Chairman Nunes shook his head, “No.” He’d never heard of them.
It was the equivalent of Marsha Clarke claiming she’d never seen OJ’s white Bronco chase prior to his murder trial.
THE OBJECT OF CANDLELIGHT VIGILS
Ever ready to come before the cameras in D.C., Nunes has been MIA in his own 22nd District. Last month during the congressional recess when other GOP committee chairmen like Jason Chaffetz of Utah faced turbulent protests, Mr. Nunes’ constituents couldn’t find him.
They were so incensed that he’d disappeared they took to holding candlelight vigils and papering light poles with Nunes’ MISSING POSTERS that read “JOIN our SEARCH PARTY to make sure he is making health care and PROTECTING vulnerable communities his top priority.”
How did a lawmaker, so blind to public accountability and clueless to key figures in an investigation of potential treason become the boss of one of the most important oversight committees on Capitol Hill?
There’s certainly nothing in his resumé that would have qualified him for the post.
If you examine Rep. Nunes’ official House bio you’ll see that he has zero professional intelligence or military service experience. Prior to running for office he was a dairy farmer from Tulare, a hyper-conservative district in California’s San Joaquin Valley 60 miles north of Bakersfield.
A BOEHNER PROTÉGÉ
After getting a pair of aggie degrees from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo he was appointed by Bush 43 to be California’s Rural Development Rep for the Department of Agriculture. He ran for Congress in 2002 and became a protégé of ousted House Speaker John Boehner who assigned him to the Intel Committee eight years later. Two terms after that Boehner elevated him to the chairmanship.
By then Nunes had been well schooled in the art of providing shade for a political rabbi.
In 2013, demonstrating his loyalty, Nunes defended the well-tanned Speaker after he was collaterally attacked by The House Freedom Caucus – the same group of ex-Tea Party Members who scuttled Donald Trump’s “repeal & replace” Obama care initiative this past week.
Four years ago, as they threatened to shut down the government over Obamacare, Mr. Nunes described the caucus Members as “lemmings with suicide vests.” He then backed-up that colorful image by referencing a Brat Pack movie.
As chronicled at the time in The Wash Post:
“’You guys ever watch 16 Candles?’ the congressman asked a small group of reporters. ‘You guys remember Long Duk Dong at the end? That’s going to be us tomorrow, waking up on the grass, crashed automobile. That’s us.'”
The Post noted that the film ended “with the foreign exchange student passed out drunk on a lawn after crashing his wealthy suburban Chicago host family’s car.”
Devin Nunes might have made it on Madison Avenue writing ad copy or penning movie reviews for Rotten Tomatoes, but again, what qualifies him to get briefed on some of the nation’s most protected secrets as one of “The Gang of Eight?”
MOVING AN INTEL HUB TO THE AZORES
Until this week’s latest blowback, the congressman’s principal claim to intelligence-related fame was his membership on the House Permanent Select Committee that tortuously explored Hillary Clinton’s role surrounding the Benghazi Attack.
Celebrated in 2014 by right-wing talk show host Hugh Hewitt as “one of our rising young stars,” Rep. Nunes confessed that he’d “been working closely with the Speaker for a long time” on the Benghazi investigation “behind the scenes.” But after a partisan two-year $6.77 million probe, the Committee issued an 800 page report which never directly blamed Mrs. Clinton who was Secretary of State at the time of the raid.
Since then, Devin Nunes’ principal intelligence obsession has been a pet project aimed at relocating The Africa and European Command centers, currently in Stuttgart, Germany to Lajes Air Base on the island of Terceira in The Azores, a volcanic archipelago in the North Atlantic 1,021 miles West of Lisbon.
Rep. Nunes is of Portuguese-Azorean ancestry and he has doggedly campaigned to put those key intelligence centers on the remote island in defiance of The DOD’s plans to create a “fusion” facility in the U.K. Even the conservative National Review, described his pork barrel initiative, which would cost an extra $1.2 billion, as a “One-Man War On The Pentagon.”
So we have to wonder: apart from his talent for cattle farming, incendiary phrase making and ethnic loyalty, how in the world did this man get “the gavel” on one of the most important and sensitive oversight committees in Washington?
Kissing up to John Boehner may have advanced his career, but after the Ohio Republican’s exit, the new Speaker Paul Ryan ratified Rep. Nunes’ chairmanship.
In fact, during his second press conference Wednesday – the one outside the WH after his ex-parte meeting with POTUS – Nunes confessed that he’d briefed Ryan before his mad dash to The West Wing and the Wisconsin Republican later professed his “full confidence” in the Intel Chair.
THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
What kind of juice does the man who drove a Mack Truck though the House Russia-hacking investigation have with the Speaker? How did he come to serve on The Trump transition team and how did he go from milking cows in Tulare to a coveted chairmanship on Capitol Hill?
Those are the questions reporters should be asking as the Intelligence Committee room goes dark this week following his abrupt cancellation of a hearing that could have shed so much more light on the extraordinary number of links between the President, his surrogates and Vladimir Putin, the man Donald Trump fawns over and John McCain calls “a murderer” and “a thug.”
In 2013 Nunes wrote a blog on the Benghazi attack, insisting that “the American people deserve to know exactly what happened there and why they were not told the truth.”
They certainly deserve no less than that now; particularly in the face of mounting evidence that Donald Trump’s victory was a Russian cyber coup d’etat — the installation in The White House of what ex-KGB Lt. Colonel Putin would call a “polezniye duraki” or a “useful fool.”
The question of Russian influence on the Trump victory has already been settled by the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. What remains are the facts behind whether Trump and his team were complicit. There is no greater truth that needs to be drilled down on at this point.
Is Devin Nunes up to the job? Or, has he been compromised in some way, such that he’d risk the very credibility of his Committee in his off-the-books run to the President? The NYT editorialized Friday calling him “a Lapdog in a Watchdog Role.”
How did that come to pass? Was his Oval Office excursion some Steve Bannon plot to wreck the Committee’s integrity and tank their investigation? Is there some kind of Kompromat on Mr. Nunes himself that’s caused him to put the blinders on? Could there more to his own role on the Trump transition team that hasn’t surfaced yet?
We need those answers and we need them now.