Six months ago, I doubt that most of the country had heard of Devin Nunes.
Now the California congressman is in the eye of a Washington hurricane that could soak President Trump or just harmlessly head out to sea.
The Beltway obsession of the moment is whether the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee will recuse himself from the investigation into ties between Trump associates and Russia and whether there was improper government surveillance. Nunes says there’s no way he is stepping aside.
A brief caveat: This whole mess is awash in partisan politics on both sides.
At the moment, the House probe seems paralyzed. A hearing that was to be held with former top Obama administration officials, and the panel has scrapped its meetings for the week.
The recusal uproar follows the revelation that Nunes secretly paid a visit to White House grounds to meet a source who he says showed him evidence indicating that some Trump transition aides were “incidentally” picked up in foreign surveillance, and possibly “unmasked,” to use the intel lingo.
The optics were, to put it mildly, awful. Nunes, who was a member of Trump’s transition team, made a show of going to the White House to brief staffers on his findings, then spoke to reporters there. If he got the stuff at the White House and then went back to the White House to discuss the material, it all looks rather orchestrated.
The congressman insists his secret-source visit was on White House grounds because he needed a secure place to view the material. Sean Spicer says the White House didn’t know he was coming.
“I needed a place I could go and find this information and review it…There was no sneaking around,” Nunes told Bill O’Reilly.
But the Dems and some liberals in the media say the chairman has compromised himself. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, has called on Nunes to disqualify himself from the probe, as has Nancy Pelosi.
Even John McCain, a fierce critic of Russia, said in a television interview: “It’s dominating the news. Something’s got to change, otherwise the whole effort in the House loses credibility.”
But GOP congressman Trey Gowdy told the Weekly Standard, “Jesus would not be a satisfactory chairperson to some of my Democratic colleagues. They would complain about his hair.”
A new subplot unfolded yesterday when the Washington Post reported that the administration “sought to block” Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, from testifying before the committee. Spicer called that a “false report” and said “the Washington Post should be ashamed of how they handled the story.”
The Post (which included the White House denial) said that “the Justice Department notified Yates earlier this month that the administration considers a great deal of her possible testimony to be barred from discussion in a congressional hearing because the topics are covered by the presidential communication privilege.” But Spicer said that DOJ made no effort to prevent Yates from appearing at the hearing that Nunes has now canceled. The Post has published the letters.
Trump, for his part, tried to give the panel a new assignment, tweeting: “Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech money to Bill, the Hillary Russian ‘reset,’ praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian Company. Trump Russia story is a hoax.”
All this has totally muddied the waters. Of course the Democrats are trying to score points at Nunes’ expense. And it’s not easy to lead an investigation involving your party’s president. But the probe will be dismissed if it’s not seen as bipartisan, so Nunes has to avoid the impression that he’s helping the home team—especially now that he’s suddenly famous.