Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, lit up the internet in back-to-back press conferences yesterday on the Hill and at the White House (see Ben, Susan and Quinta’s handy analysis). Nunes’s statements may be puzzling in isolation, but they make a lot more sense in the context of recent events and his own conduct over the last month.
It’s worth starting off by parsing what Nunes actually and intentionally said before he tripped over himself answering reporters’ questions. Nunes’s prepared statement sought to establish at least two major points, which seem to be related: (1) that the Intelligence Community collected communications of members of the Trump transition team, and (2) that the collection was “incidental” and not “related to Russia” and yielded information lacking in “apparent foreign intelligence value.”
Consider first Nunes’s assertion that Trump associates’ communications were collected. I agree with Ben, Susan and Quinta that this did nothing to actually vindicate Trump’s explosive tweetstorm accusing President Obama of ordering a “tapp” of Trump’s phones at Trump Tower. But Nunes’s statement certainly helps Trump mitigate or—with sufficient distortion—defeat the charge that those tweets amounted to outright lies. Combine this with the big show that Nunes made of marching to the White House to personally deliver his “news” to Trump. The result: it looks very much like Nunes’s stunt was an attempt to lend Trump some cover for leveling an allegation of criminal wrongdoing against his predecessor. Unsurprisingly, when then asked if he felt vindicated on his wiretapping claims, Trump stated, “I must tell you, I somewhat do.” A few hours later, Trump doubled down with this retweet:
EXACTLY AS I SAID - House Intel Chair: We Cannot Rule Out Sr. Obama Officials Were Involved in Trump Surveillance https://t.co/ernZeDQIfy
— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) March 23, 2017
The timing, too, of Nunes’s decision to go rogue on the House Intelligence Committee with his statements to the press and to the White House makes perfect sense if his goal was to assist an embattled administration. Although for several weeks Trump has been feeling the heat for his accusation against Obama, that heat turned all the way up at the House hearing on Monday when FBI director James Comey stated he had “no information that supports those tweets.” As Ben observed in his hearing analysis, Comey phrased this refutation carefully and generously—but that didn’t stop the press from emphasizing how humiliating Comey’s testimony was for Trump.
Of course, from a strategic perspective, the problem with announcing the collection of Trump team members’ communications is that it risks creating the perception that the Trump team was doing something that warranted surveillance. Transition teams are often in contact with foreign counterparts, so it’s hardly unusual they would appear in incidental collection—but the allegation that names were “unmasked” raises the specter that something about the nature of those contacts raised suspicion, as was the case with General Flynn’s calls with the Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Hence Nunes’s second point of emphasis: this was incidental collection and had nothing to do with Russia—and indeed, whatever details it yielded about Trump team members had “little apparent foreign intelligence value.”
If you are inclined to dismiss as speculation the idea that the major prongs of Nunes’s prepared statement were likely designed to provide the White House cover, consider Nunes’s conduct over the last month.
On March 5, the day after when Trump accused Obama of illegal wiretapping, Nunes criticized the press for taking Trump, a political “neophyte,” too "literally.” Nunes then went much further, pointing out that Flynn may indeed have been wiretapped and that Trump had raised "valid questions" about whether and how he or his associates had been targeted. In retrospect, this was more than downplaying or justifying Trump’s tweets; it was also a harbinger of the direction Nunes took yesterday.
This pattern of behavior goes well beyond Nunes’s statements yesterday (two days after the Comey hearing) and on March 5 (the day after Trump tweeted his wiretapping accusation). However weird the White House spin gets, it consistently finds an aggressive, timely defender in Nunes. Some weeks before the Obama-tapped-my-wires tweets, on February 14, President Trump tweeted this:
The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2017
The evening before, Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser, and the day after, President Trump unleashed a tweetstorm specifically accusing the IC of leaking like a sieve. At intervals between these events, Nunes lashed out at the press for "maliciously" attacking Flynn and then, more astonishingly, suggested the FBI may have improperly recorded Flynn’s calls in violation of his privacy rights. “I expect for the FBI to tell me what is going on, and they better have a good answer,” said Nunes, according to the Post. “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded.”
As I explained that day, in a post tracking how indefensible Nunes’s behavior had gotten:
Even if unintentionally, Nunes’s attempt to transform a major national security scandal into a surveillance scandal misleads the public on the activities of the IC. Irrespective of how information about the calls between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was leaked, there is no way that Nunes is unaware that calls involving key Russian diplomats like Kislyak are monitored as a matter of routine. (And if Nunes is unaware of this, he has no business on, much less chairing, House Intelligence).
As noted elsewhere in that post, Nunes's decision to point the finger at the FBI was just the latest in a series of conspicuously heavy-handed, pro-White House positions. Back in November, while serving as a member of Trump’s transition team, Nunes aggressively defended Trump’s pick of Flynn as national security adviser notwithstanding serious questions about Flynn’s paid appearance at a pro-Kremlin gala, and in January, days after the IC released a report concluding that "Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-Elect Trump's election,” Nunes went on “Fox News Sunday” to dismiss the idea as politically motivated. In February, Nunes spoke to reporters on the White House's request, allegedly to knock down stories about Trump campaign contacts with Russia.
In short, what Nunes did yesterday afternoon was indefensible but, based on his recent past behavior, far from inexplicable. I don’t believe in propounding conspiracy theories here; I do not know why Nunes is helping the White House so overtly and don't think there's much to responsibly speculate about on that score. But the fact that he has become a White House mouthpiece and the fact that he cannot credibly chair the Russia/Trump investigation should now be beyond dispute.
Anyone whose mind was not made up before today received loud confirmation yesterday afternoon: Susan and Ben’s proposal for a select congressional committee, one with the mandate and the resources necessary to undertake a bipartisan independent inquiry into one of the most disturbing episodes in modern American history, is no longer one of several credible options. John McCain is right. It is the only one.