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Opinion In leaked audio, Devin Nunes makes strong case for Democratic Congress

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes the key takeaways from a secret recording of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Last night, Rachel Maddow reported on leaked audio of Rep. Devin Nunes, who is perhaps President Trump’s staunchest bodyguard against accountability on Capitol Hill, in which he candidly revealed that Republicans hope to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein after the elections. Nunes is already leading such an impeachment drive — which hasn’t generated much GOP support — but Nunes added that he expected many Republicans to back Rosenstein’s impeachment down the line.

In case the meaning of this isn’t clear enough, Nunes also candidly stated that maintaining the GOP majority in Congress is imperative — to protect Trump from the Russia investigation.

In so doing, the California Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee inadvertently made a very powerful case for a Democratic takeover of Congress. Nunes’s comments also point to a way that Democrats can make the midterms about Trump corruption, while also making the Russia story — and the handling of it by Trump and Congressional Republicans — an important strand in that argument.

Maddow obtained the audio from a representative of a progressive group who attended a fundraiser for GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state. The key quote comes when Nunes worries about a GOP loss in the midterms, given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions still remains recused from matters involving the Russia probe:

“If Sessions won’t unrecuse and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones. Which is the real danger … we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.”

This is a straight-up declaration that the imperiled GOP congressional majority is the last line of protection for Trump, given that his attorney general is not defending the president from the Russia investigation, and given that the investigation could, in fact, pose a threat to him.

President Trump approved the release of a controversial and classified congressional memo on Feb. 2. Here are some of its main claims. (Video: The Washington Post)

Nunes has perverted his oversight role into a nonstop harassment campaign designed to derail a legitimate investigation into a hostile foreign power’s sabotaging of our democracy, all to shield Trump from scrutiny of whether he and his cronies conspired with that effort and tried to cover it up. He has engaged in a bad-faith-saturated effort to mislead the American people about the origins of that investigation. His committee protected the president politically by releasing a report that conspicuously broke with the intelligence community — and even with Senate Republicans — by declining to conclude that Russia corrupted our election for the express purpose of electing Trump.

In this audio, Nunes is forthrightly declaring that the importance of maintaining the GOP majority lies in the need for it to continue carrying out this campaign. What’s really devastating about this quote is that it positions the GOP majority as a kind of backstop for Trump, should his attorney general keep failing in his duty to protect him from the investigation, a task, of course, that Trump himself has demanded Sessions carry out.

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In this context, the drive to impeach Rosenstein is revealed for what it truly is: not congressional oversight of law enforcement, which we want exercised in good faith on behalf of the public interest, but rather an effort to remove the person who, in his capacity as overseer of the investigation, is not protecting Trump from it. Trump has joined in the attacks on Rosenstein and on the integrity of his own Justice Department. While Trump plainly feels constrained from firing Rosenstein himself, he has rewarded Nunes’ efforts to undercut Rosenstein by hailing him as a “true American patriot.” Trump, then, views maintaining the GOP majority in similar terms to Nunes: as his last bulwark against the Russia investigation.

At another point in the audio, Nunes suggests the real problem with impeaching Rosenstein is the timing: It would force the Senate to act on it, putting off the confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Nunes suggests that if impeachment is deferred until after the election, “I don’t think you’re gonna get an argument” about it from “most” Republicans, meaning they would later go along with it. Whether that’s true, it paints a damning picture of the House GOP’s treatment of its oversight role.

Indeed, Nunes has now directly implicated the House GOP leadership in this damning picture. McMorris Rodgers is no. 4 in the leadership, and in the audio, she doesn’t take issue with Nunes’s floating of the possibility of post-election impeachment of Rosenstein. This neatly highlights how GOP leaders have cleverly obscured their involvement in Nunes’s campaign, by publicly defending the Mueller probe, even as they tacitly encourage Nunes to continue undermining it. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan should now face questions about this new Nunes audio, particularly Nunes’s portrayal of the GOP majority as Trump’s last-resort protector.

Trump’s corruption and attacks on Russia probe are part of the same story

The midterm elections are partly about whether we will get a Congress that functions as a real check on our out-of-control president. Majorities in competitive House districts have said they want this check, and large national majorities view the Mueller probe as legitimate and disagree with Trump’s portrayal of it as a “witch hunt.”

It is sometimes argued that Democrats should make the midterms about Trump’s seamy culture of corruption, rather than about Russia. But the Nunes audio demonstrates that Democrats can point to those two things as part of the same story. Whether it’s Trump’s profiteering off the presidency and his refusal to release his tax returns, which might shed light on his self-dealing — or his efforts to derail scrutiny of the corruption of our democracy on his behalf, and of the real reasons he continues to absolve Russia of culpability for it — Trump is counting on a GOP Congress to shield him from accountability and to allow him to operate with impunity.

It has become obvious that the only way we are going to get serious oversight of Trump is if Democrats take control of the House. Nunes has now helpfully confirmed this as clearly as anyone could want.