There’s one sentence in the audio recording obtained by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that, by itself, significantly undercuts any claims that he’s approaching investigations into President Trump with objectivity.
Nunes was speaking at a fundraiser in Washington and addressed his role as the head of the House Intelligence Committee, a position that in recent months has put him at the forefront of investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“If Sessions won’t unrecuse and Mueller won’t clear the president,” Nunes told the audience, “we’re the only ones, which is really the danger.”
He refers first in that comment to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions recused himself from any investigations into Russia in March 2017, meaning that when Rod J. Rosenstein was confirmed as deputy attorney general the following month, Rosenstein assumed responsibility for all Russia-related issues. That included, to Trump’s consternation, the investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian effort to influence the election. Some have argued that Sessions could either unrecuse himself or say that the probe now under the control of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is not covered by the recusal — allowing Sessions, if desired, to end the investigation. That seems to be what Nunes is getting at.
Nunes also mentions Mueller directly, suggesting that another possible resolution of the investigation into Trump is that Mueller could simply clear the president of allegations of wrongdoing. Which is certainly one possible outcome.
Consider, though, what’s missing from Nunes’s statement before the second comma. We’re the only ones who what? In context, the answer is “clear Trump.” Should Sessions not fire Mueller and Mueller not absolve Trump of guilt, Nunes and his allies could be the only ones in a position to do so.
But if Mueller doesn’t clear Trump at the end of his investigation, there may be a good reason: Trump’s actions didn’t warrant his being cleared. Mueller is compiling evidence and talking to witnesses (potentially including Trump) to determine what happened in 2016 and who might be culpable for aiding the Russian effort. Mueller’s doing so with the acquiescence of the Department of Justice, which is to some extent predicated on the idea of investigating allegations to determine their validity. It’s very possible, probably even likely, that Trump himself won’t be shown to have worked with Russia. It’s also possible (though probably less likely) that he won’t be determined to have tried to obstruct the investigation itself. This is what Mueller’s investigation is meant to determine.
That’s not how Nunes appears to be looking at it, though. Even setting aside that he almost certainly believes Trump should be cleared sooner rather than later — that is, not at some future point when Mueller’s work is done — he’s pretty clearly operating from a position that his job is to protect Trump, not to assess in good faith the allegations about how Russian interference unfolded.
One could argue that Nunes’s objection is to Mueller’s probe itself, that he, like the president, believes that Mueller and his team are hopelessly biased against Trump. That would explain the burst of defenses of Trump that Nunes has embraced over the course of the year.
But remember that those defenses didn’t start in 2018. About two months after Trump was inaugurated — over a month before Mueller came on the scene — it was Nunes who attempted to rationalize Trump’s tweets about how President Barack Obama had tapped phones in Trump Tower, an assertion quickly shown to not be true. Nunes was summoned to the White House complex where he was shown information that he later told the news media suggested improper behavior by Obama officials. This, like Nunes’s assertions about the warrant obtained by the FBI to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, was generally understood to be a misrepresentation that was at best tangential to the central issue. The House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into whether Nunes had improperly shared classified information but closed the investigation after being unable to properly review classified information at the heart of their query.
It is the mandate of the House Intelligence Committee to “provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States.” This is the umbrella under which Nunes has continually sought cover, arguing that his criticisms of intelligence agencies and officials stem from his oversight efforts. But Nunes is hardly an impartial arbiter. He was one of five members of the House to be appointed to Trump’s transition team after the presidential election. (Another of the five was Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who now faces felony charges in an insider-trading case.) From November 2016 to January 2017, Nunes’s role was to help make Trump’s presidency a success.
It was an effort that apparently hasn’t yet ended.
Nunes’s comments operated from the assumption that clearing Trump was the important thing to do. If that’s the case, if Trump being absolved of guilt is the most critical part of this entire process, then Nunes is largely right: The partisan Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee might be the only group willing to overtly put that goal above all others.
And while one might argue that Nunes was simply making a pitch to Republican donors, telling them what they want to hear, we should remember that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have already demonstrated that absolving Trump is their most pressing goal.
That word, “absolve,” made it into the headline of the New York Times’ report on the Republican majority’s report summarizing their investigation into Russian interference — an investigation that failed to include interviews with several prominent campaign officials and that came to the conclusion that the Russian interference effort wasn’t meant to aid Trump. Democrats on the panel and both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate side agreed with the intelligence community’s determination that the Russian effort was meant to do precisely that.
Before the recording obtained by Maddow, it was hard to give Nunes the benefit of the doubt that he was fairly considering the Russia investigation. After hearing that one sentence, it’s about impossible.