The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, has spent the week trying to help President Trump deal with the aftermath of the collapse of Trump’s wiretapping allegations and the FBI’s formal confirmation that it’s probing the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Instead, Nunes, a seven-term Congress member from California, may end up making Trump’s Russia problems worse.
The latest stumble came Friday, when Nunes abruptly canceled a planned public hearing with top former national security officials about Russian interference in the 2016 election. The House panel was originally scheduled to hear from President Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Tuesday. But Friday morning, Nunes abruptly pushed back the hearing.
That sparked a strong response from the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, who took to Twitter to slam the move as an “attempt to choke off public info.”
It also came just a day after Nunes had apologized to fellow members of the House Intelligence Committee for going to the White House to discuss information he had regarding Trump’s wiretapping accusations without first consulting them.
Nunes’s behavior shows that the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation is already being impaired by partisan warfare. That could help fuel calls for a special prosecutor or a select committee where both parties would have subpoena powers. Nunes, in other words, could wind up paving the way for exactly the things he and Trump most want to stave off.
Nunes is trying to shield Trump
Nunes claims he canceled the hearing because the committee needs to meet with National Security Agency head Mike Rogers and FBI Director James Comey first, in a private setting, ostensibly to discuss classified matters of some kind.
But the broader pattern in Nunes’s theatrics this week suggests he’s simply trying buy time and shield the Trump administration from what could be a high-profile and politically damaging hearing.
That would be in keeping with his behavior over the past week, which included an awkward attempt to try to validate Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Nunes claimed an unnamed source had informed him that the intelligence community had surveilled the Trump administration’s transition team. But over the course of the week he started to hedge and walk back the claim, and Friday morning he said he can’t be sure that Trump’s or his aides’ conversations were captured by surveillance at all.
During a press conference on Friday, Schiff said Nunes’s behavior this week was a reminder that an independent commission is necessary for Congress to properly investigate Russian interference in the election and any evidence of coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
“One of the profound takeaways of the last couple days is we really do need an independent commission here,” Schiff said. “Because the public at the end of the day needs to have confidence that someone has done a thorough investigation untainted by political considerations.”
There’s at least one prominent Republican who shares that view. Sen. John McCain repeated his calls for either an independent commission or a congressional select committee, which would give the investigation far more manpower and be handled in a far more bipartisan fashion than on a regular committee.
So, for example, while on the standing committees Republicans control which subpoenas get issues or which kinds of witnesses are called to testify for hearings, on a select committee both parties would have equal power to do so.
"No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don't say that lightly,” McCain told MSNBC's Greta Van Susteren on Wednesday.
In a blistering editorial, the New York Times said Nunes’s had “destroyed the credibility of his committee” and “[made] clear that he is unfit for the job and should be replaced.”
Nunes’s various claims about Obama have been a mess
Nunes is going to extraordinary lengths to provide cover to Trump, and it’s unclear when he’ll stop. Here’s a comprehensive timeline of his actions this week:
On Monday, during a hearing of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence, the heads of the FBI and NSA categorically denied President Trump’s tweets claiming that President Obama had ordered the US intelligence community to wiretap Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Sometime between the hearing and Wednesday morning, Nunes claimed to have received a tip from an unnamed source that US intelligence had picked up the communications of some Trump staff during the presidential transition.
The raw intelligence that Nunes said he reviewed showed no evidence of a wiretap on Trump. Rather, it showed that the conversations had been intercepted incidentally under a court-ordered Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant. In plain English, that means Trump officials had spoken to a foreign national whose communications were being monitored by US intelligence, so their conversations were picked up despite the fact that they weren’t targets of surveillance.
Before taking this information to the FBI or the other members of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes briefed his political boss, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Around midday on Wednesday, Nunes went public, holding a press conference to announce that “the intelligence community incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition.” During the press conference, he initially suggested the president’s personal communications had been hoovered up, but then backtracked to say it was merely “possible” that Trump was recorded.
Afterward, he went to the White House to brief the president’s team. He still had yet to meet with Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
After his briefing with Nunes, around 3 pm, Trump told reporters that the Congress member’s revelations “somewhat” vindicated his claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, even though they did nothing of the kind.
Around the same time as Trump’s comments, Nunes told NBC’s Kasie Hunt that he could not share the raw intelligence with the rest of the House Intelligence Committee because he doesn’t actually have the raw intelligence in his possession — raising the question of how he managed to vet it sufficiently before going public in the first place.
On Thursday, Nunes held another press conference. When a reporter asked him if the intercepts were given to him by members of the Trump administration, he refused to answer, saying, “We’re not going to ever reveal sources.”
Since then, there have two more developments. Nunes has apologized to fellow committee members for going to the White House with information about wiretapping without consulting them. And, crucially, as of Friday, he said he’s not actually sure whether the conversations of Trump and his aides were captured during surveillance.
Nunes’s partisan maneuvering on the House Intelligence Committee may be helping Trump a bit in the short term. But in the long run, it could end up helping his opponents push for an investigation that actually delivers on what it’s supposed to do.