The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Devin Nunes, the congressman who nearly derailed the House’s investigation into Russia, is blaming Democrats

Rep. Devin Nunes's credibility questioned as Russia investigation goes on (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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The last time we heard from the chair of the House committee leading an investigation into Russia meddling, it was in April, when Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) announced that he was temporarily stepping down from leading the investigation because he's under investigation for his handling of the investigation.

The House Ethics Committee (made up of an even number of Democrats and Republicans in Congress) is looking into whether Nunes improperly shared classified information.

At issue seems to be a March trip Nunes took to the White House to brief President Trump on information that appeared designed to prove Trump's so-far-unprovable claim that President Barack Obama spied on him during the campaign. We later learned that Nunes got this information from Trump aides.

Nunes called the ethics charges “baseless” but said it's in the best interest of the committee if he steps aside while they get the matter resolved.

The Devin Nunes wiretapping saga, explained

The status of his colleagues' ethics investigation into Nunes isn't clear, but Nunes's feelings about the whole Russia investigation are VERY clear: He blames Democrats for sidelining it. The Los Angeles Times' Sarah Wire recently got a video of Nunes talking at a private fundraising dinner in April, the day after he stepped down, about it all.

Nunes is a Trump ally, and how he framed the events above is very much in line with how the president has derided the various Russia investigations: in the most partisan terms possible. So we thought we'd take a moment to compare Nunes's more partisan claims with the facts:

Nunes claim No. 1: “The Democrats don’t want an investigation on Russia. They want an independent commission.”

Only half of this is accurate, and it's not the first half. Many Democrats do want an independent commission to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. election as a supplement to the (a) congressional investigations, (b) the FBI's investigation and (c) the special counsel's investigation.

Congress most recently set up an independent commission after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It would be made up of political and legal minds whose job would be to look at what went wrong and produce a report about it.

Most ethics experts agree that such a commission would be an escalation into government investigations into Russia meddling. That Democrats want one arguably voids the first half of Nunes's accusation — that they are opposed to any substantial investigation into Russia.

Your cheat sheet to all the investigations into Russia and Trump

Nunes claim No. 2: “Why do they want an independent commission? Because they want to continue the narrative that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are best friends.”

It's always difficult to determine motive, but if Democrats want to set up an investigation to push a political narrative, an independent commission would be a terrible way to do it.

Even though this commission would be approved by Congress, no one currently in Congress would serve on it. That means Congress will have no control over what the commission may determine about Russia meddling and whether there was any Trump involvement.

Nunes claim No. 3:[Russia is] the reason that he won, because Hillary Clinton would have never lost on her own; it had to be someone else’s fault.”

Wait, was this Nunes or Trump talking? Both of them appear to be saying that Democrats' support for more investigations into Russia is really derived from their frustration that they lost the election.

Again, motive is difficult to determine. But it's worth pointing out that even Republicans have said the investigation into Russian meddling is important and should be taken seriously. “This is one of the biggest investigations that the Hill has seen in my tenure here,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russia.

(In part because of Nunes's decision to brief the president, the Senate's committee is widely seen in Washington as the most serious congressional investigation into Russia.)

Another thing to parse here: Nunes also seems to be saying that Clinton and Democrats haven't fully accepted responsibility for their loss.

Clinton has given him some ammunition in that regard. In recent public appearances, she's said she takes “absolute personal responsibility” for her loss, but then offered a variety of other reasons: bad debate questions, misogyny, Russian meddling and the FBI's investigation into her emails.

'If he wants to tweet about me, I'm happy to be the diversion': Clinton reflects on Trump's election win (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Nunes claim No. 4: “They have tried to destroy this Russia investigation, they’ve never been serious about it.”

I'm not sure what Nunes is referring to when he says Democrats have tried to “destroy” this Russia investigation. (His office did not immediately return a request for comment.)

It's Nunes whose briefing of the president nearly derailed the House committee's investigation on all things Russia.

As for whether Democrats are serious, here's Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, in March: “This is the most significant thing I have ever taken on in my public life.”

Nunes claim No. 5:[O]ne of the great things now that I’ve stepped aside from this Russia investigation, I can actually say what I want to say.”

This is a judgment call on Nunes's part. A questionable one.

Nunes is still the chair of the House Intelligence Committee; he's just not involved in its most high-profile investigation.

If Nunes does take over the Russia investigation again (he says he will once the ethics committee clears him), he appears to have no interest in assuaging people's concerns that he'll lead the Russia investigation impartially.

And that's a problem for anyone who wants to get to the truth. Congress, because it's inherently partisan, was already at a disadvantage for having its findings believed by the public. Then Nunes happened, and an NBC-WSJ poll found 73 percent of Americans want an independent investigation because they don't trust Congress's.