The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Devin Nunes chose Trump-branded truth as a career five years ago

President Donald Trump, with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) behind him, speaks October 2018 in Arizona. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) officially joined Donald Trump’s team three days after Trump won the 2016 election. In a brief news release published on his official congressional website, Nunes announced that he had been named to serve on the executive team of Trump’s transition effort.

So began a formal relationship that reached its apex this week, with Nunes leaving public service to run Trump’s media start-up. There, Nunes will be able to help shape “Truth Social,” the gestating messaging service meant to serve as a response to Trump and Nunes’s shared nemesis, Twitter.

The reality, of course, is that Nunes has been working primarily on behalf of Trump-branded truth since the earliest days of Trump’s presidency.

Two months after Trump was inaugurated, Nunes was riding in an Uber with a staffer when he got a message on his phone. Suddenly, he stopped the car and got out without explanation. He had been summoned to the White House complex, it turned out, where staffers presented him with evidence meant to bolster a wild claim made by the president. That claim was that federal authorities had tapped the phones at Trump Tower during the campaign, an allegation that was elevated by right-wing radio host Mark Levin. It wasn’t true, as was made clear both immediately and continuously.

But truth is social in Trump’s world, in that what is considered true depends on what people in your social circle are willing to believe. So Nunes was shown evidence that, in fact, someone in Trump’s group of advisers had been swept up in surveillance efforts during the transition.

Nunes hyped this revelation dutifully.

“I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition,” he said at a news conference. He later added that he had “confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.” Trump was so excited about Nunes’s “discovery” — at that point not obviously a function of White House intervention — that he was touting it to reporters even before he had been “briefed” on it by Nunes. (Nunes later faced a congressional investigation into whether he had inappropriately shared classified information.)

This was not evidence that phones were tapped at Trump Tower during the campaign. Instead, it was evidence that, while surveilling a Russian official, the government had captured a discussion involving Michael Flynn, then working as an adviser to Trump’s transition team. When a U.S. citizen is communicating with a foreign official who is under surveillance, the citizen’s identity is often masked to protect his or her privacy. But it can be unmasked if needed, so that, for example, the FBI might learn that someone is involved in an espionage plot. Or, in this case, that Flynn was encouraging the Russian government to take a particular action. This was the catalyst for Flynn’s downfall: He later lied to investigators about those conversations and, shortly after beginning service as Trump’s national security adviser, left the White House.

Nunes’s role in the dispute, leveraging his skepticism of the intelligence community, helped establish a recurring pattern during Trump’s presidency. Trump would make a claim, and then his team would scramble to superglue together something that could be considered evidence of the claim when considered with an abundance of generosity in the right light. So Trump declared that he had, in fact, been under surveillance when he had, in fact, not been.

A year later, Nunes was again at the center of such an effort. By then, Trump had fired FBI Director James B. Comey and was weathering the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Trump’s response to this had always been that he was being unfairly targeted by political opponents. So, as with the “unmasking” effort, there was a post-hoc effort to prove that true. Nunes again had a key contribution: a memo written by a staffer, Kash Patel, that claimed a surveillance warrant targeting an adviser to the Trump campaign was flawed.

A later review by the Justice Department inspector general did identify “inaccurate information being included in the applications” for those warrants. But the broad line of argument promoted by Nunes and Trump — that this was an essential part of the Russia probe and it had been kneecapped — was clearly not true. The adviser, Carter Page, had left the campaign by the time the warrants were obtained and was an understandable focus of counterintelligence officials, given his history and his mid-campaign visit to Russia. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants were a black eye for the FBI, but they were also both potentially reflective of systemic sloppiness and ancillary to the broader questions raised by the Russia investigation.

Later in 2018, Nunes offered a plain explanation for his efforts on Trump’s behalf.

“If [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions won’t unrecuse,” he said at a fundraiser, referring to Sessions’s decision to not interfere with the probe, “and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones, which is really the danger.” His job wasn’t to elevate the truth but to clear Trump’s name. Before the midterms, he declared that the effort to undercut the Russia probe would be an electoral boon to his party.

When Trump faced impeachment in late 2019 for trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, his lead defender was one Devin Nunes. Nunes tried the old playbook, once again, scrambling to suggest that it was the Democrats who had been colluding with Ukraine against Trump. This was not true.

Soon, attention drifted elsewhere. Mueller’s work was done. The pandemic emerged. Trump’s most loyal allies became his new attorney general, William P. Barr, and John Ratcliffe, whom he tapped to run the national intelligence directorate. When Ratcliffe assumed that role, he joined Kash Patel, who had come over a few months prior.

After the 2020 Census, California undertook its decennial effort to redraw its congressional district boundaries. This was bad news for Nunes, whose Central Valley district was suddenly a lot more hostile to a Republican legislator. Nunes now had an impetus to leave public service. Why spend a year trying to persuade skeptical voters to let you keep the job you had used to defend and amplify Trump when you could just work for Trump directly?

Nunes’s career was already going to be largely remembered for its slavish dedication to Trump’s self-proclaimed truths. Now he can play the same role without asking voters if they approve.