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Devin Nunes's botched effort to scuttle the Trump/Russia investigation, explained

House Intelligence Committee Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) Speaks On Russia Investigation Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If you’re the Republican chair of the House panel charged with leading the growing investigation into President Trump’s wiretapping allegations, it isn’t a good sign when a leading senator from your own party says you’ve lost all credibility and mockingly compares you to Inspector Clouseau.

It’s also not a good sign when the top Democrat on your committee accuses you of doing the White House’s bidding and demands that you recuse yourself from the probe. Or when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says you’ve tarnished your office. Or when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer goes even further and flatly calls for your removal.

But that’s exactly where Rep. Devin Nunes, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, now finds himself.

The seven-term GOP Congress member is at the center of a widening scandal over whether he has been collaborating with the White House to shield Trump from the continuing political fallout over the president’s unsubstantiated accusation that President Obama ordered the FBI to tap his phones during the campaign.

The criticism stems from Nunes’s disclosures that he met with an unnamed source at the White House complex who gave him classified information purportedly validating some of Trump’s claims. (To be clear: It doesn’t.)

It’s all a bit confusing, but here’s why Nunes’s White House meeting really matters. Nunes has steadily refused to detail the information or identify his source. The fact that he met that unnamed person at the White House complex raises the real possibility that the source was a member of the administration. In other words, Nunes may have used information he received from the Trump White House itself to publicly try to deflect blame from Trump.

“If the chairman of an investigative committee met with one of the targets of the investigation, that would be a very serious matter,” Rep. Jim Himes, a Democratic member of the House intelligence panel, told me. “The chairman says it was an innocent meeting. If that’s true, why isn’t he telling us any of the details?”

It’s a very fair point. Here are two others. Nunes’s murky and unexplained interactions with the White House raise serious questions about whether his committee can run a credible investigation into Trump’s wiretapping claims and ties to Russia. They also raise questions about whether the GOP-held Congress can be trusted to run a full and impartial probe into any aspect of the Trump administration.

With Nunes indefinitely suspending his entire Russia probe on Tuesday, the answer to both questions — at least for now — appears to be a pretty solid no.

The timing of Nunes’s first attempt to shield Trump is very fishy

The entire saga began last Monday, when FBI Director James Comey confirmed for the first time that the bureau was conducting a criminal investigation into “any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government” and into “whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

Comey — joined by Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency — also shot down Trump’s allegation that then-President Obama tapped his communications during the campaign. Both men flatly said there was no evidence to support Trump’s claim, which had also been refuted by top lawmakers from both parties.

The hearing, put more plainly, was a catastrophe for Trump, who has been lying about the purported wiretapping for weeks.

This is where Nunes enters the picture. Last Wednesday was the first bombshell, with Nunes using a pair of press conferences to announce that he’d seen intelligence reports showing that US spies “incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition,” including the president himself as well as others who know work in the administration.

Nunes provided no evidence to bolster Trump’s initial accusations, and over the course of the week he started to hedge and walk back the claim that he’d received information that supported any part of the president’s allegations. By Friday morning, he was saying he couldn’t be sure that Trump’s or his aides’ conversations were captured by surveillance at all. Nunes also apologized to fellow members of the House Intelligence Committee for briefing top officials at the White House before talking to members of his own committee.

Nunes was just getting started. On Friday, he infuriated Democrats anew by abruptly canceling a planned public hearing with Obama’s former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Tuesday. (The Washington Post just reported that the White House worked to block Yates from testifying, presumably to spare the president from more embarrassing disclosures about the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. Andrew Prokop has more on that here.)

The reaction to Nunes’s actions last week came quickly — and it was vicious. Schumer called for Nunes to be removed from his post, while Pelosi, joined by Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Nunes should immediately recuse himself fully from the Trump-Russia probe.

Nunes’s Democratic critics got a new ally on Tuesday in South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who told NBC that Nunes has “lost his ability to lead” and was conducting an “Inspector Clouseau investigation.”

Nunes has responded by digging in his heels even further. Himes told me the GOP chairman canceled the week's other planned hearings Nunes himself said the panel wouldn't move ahead with planned interviews with members of the Trump campaign staff, transition officials, and law enforcement and intelligence personnel until Comey returned for a closed hearing. That hasn't been scheduled, which means all of the panel’s Russia work has been brought to an indefinite halt.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, at least for now, is standing by Nunes. Asked at a Tuesday press conference whether Nunes should recuse himself and whether he knew Nunes’s source, Ryan replied “no and no.”

The Trump administration, unsurprisingly, is bobbing and weaving as it refuses to answer continued questions about who signed Nunes in to the White House complex, as would be the case for any visitor.

Knowing that name would help reveal whether Nunes’s source was a West Wing staffer — one of the biggest and most important unknowns in the entire saga.

Nunes is trying to protect Trump. It’s not working.

Devin Nunes is a rock-ribbed Republican who served on Trump’s transition team, a point critics continually — and fairly — raise when questioning whether he could impartially oversee a probe into the president.

Even if Nunes were a fanatical Trump-hating Democrat, though, it’s hard to know what more he could have done to ensure that the Trump wiretapping scandal — which is enormously damaging to the president — stayed in the news.

“If this is an organized effort to provide the White House cover, it’s having the exact opposite effect,” Himes told me. “It’s the equivalent of your spouse sneaking in at 4 am, shoes in the hand and reeking of margaritas. It’s not the behavior of a group of people who believe they’re innocent.”

Himes is right that Nunes has — clearly unintentionally — sparked a wave of new and damaging stories about Trump’s wiretapping claims.

Think about the events of the past week alone. In the immediate aftermath of Nunes’s disclosures, Trump said the comments left him feeling “somewhat” vindicated, while the Republican Congressional Committee sent a list-building email with the subject line “Confirmed: Obama spied on Trump.”

As the week wore on, the GOP’s good cheer quickly faded. First, it became clear that nothing in what Nunes said in any way vindicated Trump’s initial tweets. In the words of the Washington Post:

In reality, Nunes appeared to be referring to legitimate intelligence operations against foreign individuals who were either in contact with Trump associates or mentioned them in conversations that were monitored as part of routine U.S. surveillance. Nunes reiterated Monday that he has seen no evidence of illegality.

The steady stream of new disclosures about Nunes’s interactions with the White House have sparked days of negative stories, each one a reminder of the degree to which Nunes broke with established protocol by secretly visiting the White House to receive unspecified information from an unnamed source — and then releasing it without sharing it with members of his own committee.

The criticism hasn’t only come from Democrats. Take Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, who cited Nunes’s actions when he renewed his calls for a specially appointed and nonpartisan select committee to take over the Trump-Russia investigation from Congress: "No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don't say that lightly," he said.

For the moment, though, Republicans like McCain and Graham stand largely alone. Most of the GOP’s other power brokers have closed ranks around Nunes even as evidence of his shady interactions with the White House continues to pile up. With Paul Ryan firmly in his corner, Nunes’s position seems secure, at least for now, as does his control over the House investigation.

That remains true despite the very real possibility that Nunes’s source worked for Trump — which means the White House could have directly interfered in a probe of the administration itself.

It’s more than just Nunes’s credibility that’s at stake here. Republican leaders have refused to appoint a special prosecutor or special select committee because they argue panels like Nunes’s are more than capable of investigating Trump on their own.

That has always seemed like a dubious argument. Nunes’s actions these past few weeks make it even clearer that he’s the wrong person to oversee what is meant to be a full and impartial probe into the many questions swirling around the Trump White House.

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