From the White House on down, Washington these days is full of people in jobs that are well above their competence level. U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has carved his own name prominently on that list. The man charged with leading bipartisan congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies — including the ongoing investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia — has in effect abandoned that critical role, choosing instead to use his position as a platform to provide political cover for President Trump.
And the thing is, he’s botching that second job as well.
Indeed, Nunes’ strange behavior, his constantly shifting stories and his seemingly panicked management style have made Trump look more guilty, even if he really isn’t. With his behavior, Nunes has also made it clear that we need an independent, nonpartisan counsel to investigate the increasingly troubling links between the Trump campaign, the Trump business empire and Russian intelligence operatives, and to give the American people a definitive account of what has happened.
The latest chapter in this story began on March 4, when Trump claimed on Twitter that Barack Obama had ordered the tapping of his phones at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, comparing it to the 1972 Watergate break-in during which Republican operatives broke into Democratic headquarters to steal campaign files. Basically, Trump publicly accused both Obama and the U.S. intelligence community of major felonies that if proved could put people into prison for years, and deservedly so.
Yet nobody believed Trump. The head of the FBI and of the NSA both publicly testified, under oath in a committee hearing chaired by Nunes, that the claims by the president they served had no basis in fact. Nunes himself was even forced to publicly admit that Trump’s claim was groundless, although he was clearly reluctant to do so.
Shortly thereafter, Nunes felt obliged to launch his disinformation campaign.
On March 22, Nunes called a surprise press conference to announce that based on secret information that he had just been given by a secret source, phone conversations between Trump transition members and foreign officials had indeed been wiretapped. Nunes made that announcement before sharing any of that information with his fellow Intelligence Committee members, as committee rules and practice require. Upon concluding his press conference, Nunes marched over to the White House to brief Trump himself on this supposed discovery.
Clearly, Nunes’ loyalty to Trump outweighed his responsibility to his own committee, which to this day has yet to see the material that Nunes gave Trump. In fact, when Nunes was asked why he had taken that bizarre action, he told Fox News that “I felt like I had a duty and obligation to tell (Trump), because, as you know, he’s taking a lot of heat in the news media.”
Protecting the president from the media is Sean Spicer’s job. It is not the job of the House Intelligence Committee chairman.
Furthermore, and by his own account, the information that Nunes was given by his source actually disproved every single element of Trump’s bombshell claim:
— According to Nunes, all the wiretapping that his “secret source” had showed him had been done legally, under approved court order. There was no “rogue” operation.
— By Nunes’ own account, all of the taped conversations that he saw occurred after the election, during the transition effort, and not during the campaign as Trump had claimed.
— Again by Nunes’ own account, Trump and his team had not been the target of the wiretaps, as the president claimed; instead, some conversations between Trump transition officials and officials from foreign governments may have been incidentally picked up by standard wiretapping targeting those foreign officials.
(It was widely reported during the Trump transition that his neophyte transition team was making calls to foreign governments and foreign officials on unsecured phones. It’s no surprise that such calls would show up on legal wiretaps — the surprise would have been if they didn’t. You may have your own privacy concerns with those practices — I certainly do — but our legal and political systems came to terms with it a long time ago.)
The only part of Nunes’ story that has raised legitimate concerns was his claim that the identity of members of Trump’s team had been inappropriately “unmasked” in wiretap transcripts. By law, the identity of U.S. citizens picked up accidentally in such wiretaps are supposed to remain hidden in such transcripts. But even that claim is now in serious question, since Nunes — once more, by his own account — is now saying that most identities in the transcripts had been masked, but that he could tell from the context who it might have been.
That is a far cry from his original claim.
And where did this alleged material come from? If you’ve followed me so far, here is where the story leaps from the merely ridiculous to the completely absurd:
Nunes had steadfastly refused to explain where he got his information, citing the need to protect sources, but in recent days the story has emerged anyway. As the chairman now concedes, he had been riding in a car with a staff member the night before when he was summoned by phone to the grounds of the Trump White House. After ditching the staff member, Nunes went to the offices of the National Security Council, where he was shown the secret material that would help him ease the media pressure on Trump.
Let’s review that, just to let it sink in:
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — the man leading an allegedly impartial investigation into Trump ties with Russia — is secretly summoned to the grounds of the Trump White House in the dark of night and handed secret information by officials of the Trump administration. The next day, the allegedly impartial chairman then holds a press conference revealing that data, implying falsely that it substantiates Trump’s charge of wiretapping.
From the press conference, the chairman ostentatiously marches back to the Trump White House to inform the president of the information that had originated from the Trump White House just the night before.
It’s a clown act. And instead of dispelling doubts and suspicions about Trump’s campaign, it accentuates them. If Nunes thought that a fair and impartial investigation would clear Trump, why hasn’t he conducted that fair and impartial investigation? Why has he repeatedly acted as if the truth were dangerous?
UPDATE at 11:50 a.m.:
The latest bizarre twist involves testimony that former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was initially scheduled to provide in a public hearing today. The session was canceled last week by Nunes, supposedly to make room on the calendar for secret testimony by FBI Director James Comey and NSA head Mike Rogers. The second Comey/Rogers hearing has itself been canceled.
According to new reporting by The Washington Post, however, the Trump White House had moved to block that testimony by Yates, arguing that attorney/client and executive privilege forbids her from testifying without White House permission. Nunes claims that his decision to cancel Yates’ testimony was not influenced by the White House objection.