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Devin Nunes’s Russia investigation was one long, unforced error

Nunes steps down from Russia probe (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

Amid major political and ethical questions about his handling of the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is stepping aside.

Nunes and his fellow Republicans are casting his move — as politicians almost always do — as Nunes wanting to avoid being “a distraction.” More accurately, it's a recognition that his handling of the matter has been disastrous basically from Day One and that he cannot credibly continue. Compounding matters was the statement from the House Ethics Committee on Thursday that it was looking into ethics complaints filed against the congressman.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes recuses himself from Russia probe

Many will cite Nunes's decision to go to the White House to learn that President Trump and his associates may have been swept up in incidental surveillance, and then briefing Trump before telling members of his own committee. Nunes apologized for this. But the truth is that Nunes's political fouls date back much further than that, and he sacrificed his credibility in this matter very early on.

Nunes has frequently made strange comments about his panel's investigation. He has repeatedly gone out of his way to play down questions about alleged wrongdoing by the Trump administration — even more so than many Republicans who aren't tasked with running an impartial investigation.

There was the time he called Trump former national security adviser Michael Flynn “the best intelligence officer of his generation” — and said the Flynn controversy over his contacts with the Russian ambassador was “a lot of nothing” — mere hours before Flynn was forced to resign. There was the time he suggested Trump could not have instructed Flynn to talk to Russia about sanctions because Trump was too busy (?). And the time he suggested Trump's tweets about Obama wiretapping him could be forgiven because Trump didn't have 27 lawyers reviewing them.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said that reporters shouldn't take President Trump's tweets "literally" because he's a "neophyte to politics." (Video: Reuters)

And then there was last week. Nunes was already facing increasing pressure from Democrats to recuse himself after his visits to the White House. It had just been reported that Nunes was given those details by someone he met during a visit to the White House grounds — later revealed to be actual White House officials. Against that backdrop, Nunes made media appearances and gave even more questionable comments about the whole thing.

That Monday afternoon, Nunes responded to questions about his White House visit by suggesting he could have been more surreptitious about it. “If I really wanted to, I could have snuck onto the grounds late at night, and probably nobody would have seen me. But I wasn't trying to hide,” he told CNN.

Nunes followed that up with an appearance that night on Bill O'Reilly show on Fox News. Addressing those calling for him to step aside — including the ranking Democrat on his own committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) — Nunes said: “I'm sure that the Democrats do want me to quit, because they know that I'm quite effective at getting to the bottom of things.”

This quote was truncated somewhat on social media, leaving off the “at getting to the bottom of things” part at the end. That made it sound like perhaps Nunes was giving away the game and admitting that he was being effective at protecting Trump.

But even at best, it was yet another strange comment. Democrats wanted Nunes to get “to the bottom of things.” That's the nature of investigations. The only reason they were questioning whether he should lead the committee was because they felt he had aligned himself too closely with the administration.

Even the most charitable interpretation of Nunes's comment to O'Reilly was that he believed this investigation would lead somewhere Democrats wouldn't like — suggesting he had already prejudged the outcome. That's not a good look for the chairman of a congressional investigation.

The comment was also instructive. It suggested that the chairman didn't truly understand that his role in the matter wasn't a partisan one. He never seemed to grasp the fact that he needed to avoid the appearance of bias, even though he was a Republican and a member of Trump's transition team. The Fix's Amber Phillips argued that Nunes was making it very difficult for fellow Republicans to defend his impartiality. He didn't even try; there was no effort to compensate.

In the end, Nunes finally went too far. But it was hardly just his wayward visits to the White House. It was also his many unforced errors in comments to the media that suggested exactly where Nunes stood — in Trump's corner.

While addressing his critics, Nunes said in the O'Reilly interview: “I say nice things about people. I know sometimes I say things that I probably shouldn't.”

Ultimately, that tendency is what did him in.