by Greg Olear
THERE WAS A TIME, believe it or not, when Devin Nunes was one of the good guys. He grew up on a cattle ranch, studied agriculture at state schools, and in 2003, the year he turned 30, he got married and was elected to Congress. What a great story! He was precocious, ambitious, self-made, and if you read early interviews, in the job for the right reasons. Yes, he was a Republican, but in the farmland district of CA-22, in Fresno and Tulane Counties, he had to be. He wasn’t a knuckle-dragger like Jim Jordan, a troll like Matt Gaetz, or an ideologue like Doug Collins. He was more of a Paul Ryan type.
As recently as 15 September 2016, while serving as chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), Nunes was perfectly capable of identifying a traitor. Here is his statement from back then, when the Committee released its Executive Summary of Review of the Unauthorized Disclosures of Former NSA Contractor Edward Snowden:
Edward Snowden is no hero—he’s a traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country. He put our servicemembers and the American people at risk after perceived slights by his superiors. In light of his long list of exaggerations and outright fabrications detailed in this report, no one should take him at his word.
And yet by 13 January 2017, a week after the Intelligence Community released a report unanimously concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump, Nunes was no longer dunking on traitors, but rather poo-pooing the notion of investigating Trump/Russia. “House committees don’t go operational like that, that I know of,” he said, as if all those Benghazi hearings were just a dream. He suggested that the committee’s time would be better spent investigating leaks, instead of, you know, treason.
What changed during the four months between September 2016 and January 2017? Why was Devin Nunes suddenly so reluctant to call out the bad guys? First, Donald John Trump somehow won the 2016 election. Second, Nunes joined the Trump Transition Team—probably the worst decision of his professional life. (The executive membership of that Team is a veritable “Who’s Who” of current and future felons: Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Flynn, Pam Bondi, Steve Mnuchin, Chris Collins, and Jared Kushner among them. If you were on that Team, you’re right now either 1. sweating out Joe Biden’s AG pick, or, 2. like Chris Christie, Kellyanne Conway, and Ben Carson, recovering from covid-19. Yikes.)
Something else must have happened, too, in that four-month span—something as yet undiscovered. Devin Nunes did something, was involved with something, or knew about something that he does not want disclosed. We have no clue what that something could be. For all we know, it’s not illegal, or even embarrassing. Whatever the case, at some point during the fall of 2016 and the winter of 2017, Devin Nunes turned from patriot who rightly recognized the traitor Edward Snowden as undeserving of a pardon, to apologist for Donald John Trump. The specific reason for his abrupt 180—the something—is one of the enduring mysteries of Trump/Russia.
Despite his background in cattle, Nunes was nevertheless named chair of the HPSCI by Paul Ryan in 2015, which would lead futurist Eric Garland to nickname him “Special Agent Dipshit Cowpoke.” As discussed, he served honorably until Trump came along.
On 18 January 2017, Nunes attended a breakfast with incoming national security adviser Mike Flynn and the foreign minister of Turkey. At the time, Flynn was working as a lobbyist for the Turkish government, a relationship he’d failed to disclose. He would subsequently plead guilty to lying to the FBI, and is currently awaiting sentencing, hoping for a pardon. Did eggs and coffee with the Turk and the traitor expose Devin Nunes to something illicit? Or was the meeting perfectly benign? We don’t know. But like the caviar Nunes may have sampled at the breakfast, his presence there was fishy.
A week later, and despite his obvious reluctance, the HPSCI opened its own investigation into Trump/Russia. Paul Ryan chose to ignore the blatant conflict of interest—Nunes had worked on the transition, and was therefore part of the group under investigation—and allowed Nunes not to recuse himself. On 27 February, responding to questions from the press about the recently-discovered phone calls between Flynn and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, the previous December, Nunes said: “As of right now, I don’t have any evidence of any phone calls ….That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but I don’t have that. And what I’ve been told by many folks is that there’s nothing there….I want to be very careful that we can’t just go on a witch hunt against Americans because they appear in news stories.” Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Committee, and a man of saintly patience, responded thus: “When you begin an investigation, you don’t begin by stating what you believe to be the conclusion.”
Later, we would learn that the phone calls between Flynn and Kislyak really did exist, the FBI really did have possession of the transcripts—and the White House had expressly requested Nunes to downplay Trump/Russia to the press. Which he did.
On 4 March, and quite out of the blue, Trump accused Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, spotlighting the “illegal surveillance” narrative:
Then came the Midnight Uber Ride of Devin Nunes. On the night of 21 March 2017—the day after the Comey hearing that confirmed the existence of an FBI investigation into Trump/Russia, which is likely not a coincidence—Nunes and a staffer were driving when he got an alarming text message. He made the Uber driver stop, jumped out of the car, and hightailed it to the White House. Once there, Nunes reportedly met the attorneys Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis, two Trump loyalists of his acquaintence, who gave him some alarming information—something about “unmasking.” The next morning, after briefing Paul Ryan, Nunes held a bizarre press conference. “I have confirmed that additional names of Trump Transition Team members were unmasked,” Nunes told reporters, before leaving to pow-wow directly with the president. (Again: the Transition Team included a number of now-felons, including Mike Flynn, who was convicted of lying to the FBI about conversations he had that were secretly recorded).
On 23 March, at another strange press conference, Nunes said: “The president didn’t invite me over, I called down there and invited myself because I thought he needed to understand what I say and he needed to get that information,” which was a complete lie, as the White House had given him the information, and not the other way around. Nunes then canceled regular HPSCI meetings, and scrapped a much-anticipated hearing at which Sally Yates, the acting attorney general who had warned the Trump people about Mike Flynn, was set to testify.
From that moment on, Devin Nunes did everything in his not inconsiderable power to throw water on the Russia investigation. He dispatched HPSCI staffers to London, to investigate the British superspy Christopher Steele. He railed against leaks, against unmasking, against Steele and the dossier. He recused himself from the investigation, but never actually went through with the recusal. He subpoenaed Fusion GPS, in a vain attempt to sully Steele, but refused to subpoena Deutsche Bank, the only legitimate creditor Trump had been able to procure in years. He launched a crusade against the Uranium One deal, a long-debunked rightwing conspiracy talking point, in a veiled attempt to get at Robert Mueller. He lobbied for the impeachment of FBI Director Christopher Wray, whom Trump had just appointed a few months earlier. He insisted that there was underhandedness in the Department of Justice, again attempting to tarnish Mueller. “I hate to use the word ‘corrupt,’ but they’ve become at least so dirty that who’s watching the watchmen? Who’s investigating these people? There is no one.”
In January 2018, Nunes wrote his infamous memo—a cherry-picked document that attempted to make the case that the FBI had erred in its issue of FISA warrants against Carter Page, or some such thing. The brouhaha about the Nunes memo was immense, and when Nunes finally released it to the press—despite DOJ concerns that doing so would jeopardize national security—it succeeded only in demonstrating his blind loyalty to the president. As one wag put it, “Nunes has pulled the pin out of the grenade and thrown away the pin.” The Nunes memo was supposed to vindicate Trump…and it could not, because it wasn’t a magic spell that made us all go back in time to before the Trump campaign began coordinating with Moscow.
Over the last two years, Nunes has engaged in a series of frivolous lawsuits against various journalists and media properties, including the corporate owner of his hometown Fresno Bee, and one against a fake Twitter cow. The purpose of these “SLAPP” lawsuits, which have no chance of winning in court, was almost certainly to dissuade investigative journalists to dig further into his activities. This past January, he finally admitted to having spoken on the phone with Lev Parnas, one of Rudy Giuliani’s Ukrainian cronies, who insisted that Nunes was “involved in getting all this stuff on [Joe] Biden.” Perhaps because of that, his clownish behavior at the impeachment hearings of Donald John Trump was nothing short of abominable.
The question is: Why? Why has Devin Nunes acted so strangely for the last four years? Why has he so brazenly attempted to scuttle the Russia investigation? Why was he talking to Lev Parnas, of all people, on the phone? Was he a client of Fraud Guarantee?
While Devin Nunes was clearly a Trump ally from the get-go, his MAGA zeal only hit a fever pitch after that late-night rendezvous at the White House with Ellis and Cohen-Watnick—when he learned something about the unmasking. What did he learn, and why did it freak him out so much? If Trump were on the recordings, that would be a concern…but would it really explain Nunes’s crazed behavior regarding the Russia investigation? Or, for that matter, his dramatic exit from the Uber after getting that text? Could the “individual” unmasked on those tapes—the “unmasking” those two White House lawyers warned him about—be none other than Devin Nunes?
About those White House lawyers—their names are once again in the news. On 9 November, Michael Ellis was promoted to general counsel of the National Security Agency. Per the Washington Post, “Ellis, who was chief counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a staunch supporter of President Trump and then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been at the White House since early 2017, when he became a lawyer on the National Security Council and then this year was elevated to senior director for intelligence.” The next day, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whose first role in the Trump Administration was as an aide to the disgraced felon Mike Flynn, was named Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.
In other words, the same two Trump loyalists whose warning compelled Nunes to jump out of his Uber in March of 2017 have just been installed in key leadership positions at the DoD and the NSA—positions that oversee intelligence.
To be fair, it may be that Cohen-Watnick and Ellis are simply the last two attorneys in DC willing to work for this corrupt administration. Given their connection to Nunes and Flynn, however, the reason for their promotion may be more sinister. The former intelligence officer Naveed Jamali reported that a former Trump Administration official told him, “This isn’t a coup, its [sic] an attempt to hide whatever criminality was going on over there.” Other commentators—including the former FBI special agent and attorney Asha Rangappa, the professor and author Teri Kanefield, and the intrepid Allison Gill of The Daily Beans podcast, all three reliably brilliant—have also suggested the possibility of a cover-up:
What does this all mean? What, if anything, is being “covered up?” I don’t know, but Devin Nunes almost certainly does.
“It’s hard to see them lie like that,” Lev Parnas told Rachel Maddow in January, referring to Nunes during the House impeachment hearings, “when you know it’s, like, that scary because you know, he was sitting there and making all statements and all that when he knew very well that he knew what was going on. He knew what’s happening. He knows who I am.”
He knew…he knew…he knew…he knows.
Understand: Nunes was the chair of the freakin’ Intelligence Committee. His job is to know things. He knows more than “citizen journalists” on Twitter. He knows more than national security reporters at major newspapers. He knows more than Congressmen on less rarified committees. He may even know more than that notorious eschewer of the President’s Daily Brief, Donald John Trump. If there were any evidence to exonerate Trump and his associates, or to even cast doubt on their complicity, Nunes would know. In four years of trying, he has failed to produce it, despite promising to do so in his much-ballyhooed “memo.” That indicates that no such evidence exists. If no such evidence exists—if, on the contrary, all available evidence suggests guilt—why is Special Agent Dipshit Cowpoke still backing Trump?
“A traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country” is how Nunes described Ed Snowden. He could just as well have been talking about himself.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Further reading: Lawfare has an excellent timeline on Nunes.