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The Devin Nunes/Trump/wiretapping controversy, explained

House Intelligence Committee Holds Closed Hearing On Russia Investigation (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Here is a real series events that took place over the course of the past week in Washington:

  1. On Monday, during a hearing of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence, the heads of the FBI and NSA categorically denied President Donald Trump’s tweets claiming that President Barack Obama ordered the US intelligence community to wiretap Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
  2. Sometime between the hearing and Wednesday morning, the committee’s chair, Devin Nunes, received a tip from an unnamed source that US intelligence had picked up the communications of some Trump staff during the presidential transition.
  3. The raw intelligence that Nunes reviewed showed no evidence of a wiretap on Trump. Rather, it showed that the conversations had been intercepted incidentally under a court-ordered FISA 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Around midday on Wednesday, he 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.
  6. Afterwards, he went to the White House to brief the president’s team. He still had yet to meet with the ranking Democrat on House Intelligence, Adam Schiff.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.”

The House Intelligence chair went public with his own read of raw intelligence transcripts before properly vetting it with his colleagues. He has offered no coherent explanation as to why bypassing normal vetting channels was acceptable behavior, where the information came from, or even what he was thinking this when he decided to do it.

Nunes’s public presentation of this information was also incredibly confusing, done in a way that makes little sense unless he was deliberately trying to obscure the truth about whether the president was wiretapped.

So Nunes appears to have, in a very short amount of time, torched his own credibility in defense of a clearly false tweet sent out by Donald Trump. And he did all of this at a time when the FBI is investigating evidence that the Trump campaign may have coordinated with Russian efforts to undermine the US election — charges that the House Intelligence Committee is, in theory, supposed to be investigating as well.

This is not normal.

Nunes’s behavior illustrates the bizarre reality of Trump’s Washington

To understand what just happened, we need to take a step back and look at the ways that Trump’s rise has distorted the way official Washington works.

Trump won the Republican nomination not by being part of the official Republican machine, but in opposition to it. His support comes not from the official Republican Party, but rather from the hardcore allegiance of grassroots Republicans and a number of devoted backers in the Republican press.

As a result of this, as well as Trump’s own personal management style, a lot of power in Washington now comes not from working across the aisle or by appeasing traditional Republican party leaders — but from staying in Trump’s good graces. To a rational, ambitious Republican politician looking to raise his or her own profile and influence, becoming a prominent Trump defender might look like a smart move.

And that seems to be what Devin Nunes tried to do, beginning with his service on Trump’s transition team. During the Michael Flynn saga in February, Nunes defended the embattled national security adviser in a Fox News appearance, calling him “the best intelligence officer of his generation.” When Trump sent out seemingly absurd tweets about Obama wiretapping him in early March, Nunes held a press conference in which he gave the president cover.

“I think a lot of the things that he says, you guys sometimes take literally,” Nunes said. “At the end of the day, I think tweets are a very transparent way for a politician of any rank to communicate with their constituents. So I don't think we should attack the president for tweeting.”

Comments like these led Aaron Blake, a Washington Post senior political reporter, to write that Nunes “seemed to go out of his way to defend Trump — in a way few others did, frankly.”

The problem with this strategy, for someone like Nunes, is that Trump says a lot of outlandish stuff and refuses to back down on it afterward. If you want to be a Trump defender, you have to stick up for him during controversies — putting your own credibility with Democrats, the media, and more establishmentarian Republicans on the line. In the Trump era, backing the president necessarily entails defending absurdities.

Whether Nunes’s strange 24 hours were an intentional attempt to make things look better for Trump, or merely an attempt to seem like he’s treating the president’s allegations “fairly,” the end result is the same: He’s given credence to Trump’s still-unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.

Nunes’s disclosures are playing well in Trump-friendly media outlets, like Fox and Breitbart, which are touting them as proof that Trump was right all along. But less partisan observers and experts on national security find his conduct baffling.

“This is cherry-picking information and then releasing it publicly,” Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and current senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, tells me. “This is not how an investigation should be done.”

Ironically, it might be backfiring against Nunes — and Trump

Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Reporters At The White House On Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s now clear to every fair-minded observer that Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped was false — even Nunes said as much in his press conference, stating, “There was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower.” At this point, the debate over wiretapping is more about the president’s refusal to ever back down than any actual wrongdoing.

But the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia is of very serious importance. Just last night, CNN reported that “The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign.” If this report is borne out by subsequent investigations, it’s the kind of scandal that ends presidencies.

Congressional investigation is important over and above what the FBI is doing. FBI counterintelligence investigations can take years and don’t often lead to criminal charges. A congressional investigation in which Republican lawmakers subpoena Trump officials and force them to testify under oath would be a vital way of providing the public with information about these extremely serious allegations.

Nunes, nominally, is supposed to be leading the House investigation into Trump’s Russia ties. In that capacity, he would have tremendous influence over the investigation, capable of shaping it behind the scenes and possibly even covering for Trump if he so chose.

But after his stunt, his partner in this investigation — Rep. Schiff — suggested that Nunes could no longer be trusted to fairly investigate the White House.

“If you have a chairman who is interacting with the White House, sharing information with the White House, when the people around the White House are the subject of the investigation and doing it before sharing it with the committee, it puts a profound doubt over whether that can be done credibly,” Schiff said during a Wednesday night appearance on MSNBC.

Nunes’s actions and the subsequent response from Schiff revived a call, from Sen. John McCain, 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.

Some mainstream conservative media figures, like Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, had an even stronger reaction than McCain. “If the Republican Party wants to do what is best for this country and its national security, they will remove Devin Nunes as Intel Chairman,” Scarborough tweeted.

By sacrificing his credibility with Democrats and the Republican mainstream on the comparatively minor issue of Trump Tower surveillance, Nunes managed to create pressure to take the much more important investigation into Trump’s Russia ties out of his hands.

If that were to happen, it’d be bad for him — and potentially even worse for Trump.

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