After President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, Rep. Devin Nunes was the only one of the top four members of a congressional intelligence committee not to issue a statement.
The California Republican’s last Twitter comment on any topic was posted in mid-March. He’s been absent from national TV. Once the public face of intelligence policy in the House of Representatives, Nunes has seemingly all but disappeared on the hottest topic of the day.
His very important responsibilities, though, remain.
Notably, the House on May 3 passed crucial intelligence legislation painstakingly written by the secretive committee Nunes still leads.
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Gone for the moment were questions about an ethics inquiry that’s sidelined Nunes from his committee’s most pressing challenge, a politically delicate probe of alleged Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Back, for the time being, was the bipartisan accord the Intelligence Committee cultivates in both its public legislating and closed-door oversight sessions.
“That’s a relief, because there was a two-week period there in which pretty much all the activity of the committee ground to a halt,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a fellow member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview.
“We’re back on track,” Himes said.
But for Nunes, the track has become a roller coaster.
Once open to the press, the 43-year-old San Joaquin Valley native, now in his eighth House term, avoids certain reporters. His public profile has shrunk, even as his peers debate Comey’s firing. He must work alongside colleagues who denigrated him, and he faces a House Committee on Ethics investigation over his handling of classified information.
Citing the ethics probe, Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Janz, a Democrat, announced in late April that he will challenge Nunes for the 22nd Congressional District seat that spans Tulare and part of Fresno County.
It’s a long shot for Janz or any other potential Democratic challenger, running in a district where Republicans hold a 43-33 percent voter registration advantage. The nonpartisan Inside Elections political handicapping newsletter counts the seat as “currently safe Republican.”
Nunes continues his prodigious fundraising, at scheduled events such as a $1,000-a-head gala co-sponsored by several lobbyists March 29 at the Capitol Hill Club. His campaign war chest held $3.2 million as of March 31, in addition to what he raises for fellow Republicans through his leadership political action committee.
“He is carrying a large amount of influence in Washington, which is beneficial for our Valley,” said attorney Mark D. Johnson, first vice chair of the Fresno County Republican Party. “I don’t think he needed to step aside from the Russian investigation, but by doing so he shows that he is a man of high integrity. I do not believe it has lessened his effectiveness or his influence.”
Fred Vanderhoof, chair of the Fresno County Republican Party, added Friday that “his stature in the district is really stronger as a result of all this.”
The tumult began over Nunes’ handling of information concerning U.S. surveillance activities and members of President Donald Trump’s team. On March 22, Nunes had briefed Trump about intelligence information he had reviewed the night before on White House grounds.
“The president needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there,” Nunes told reporters, “and I have a duty to tell him that.”
Because Nunes was also a key transition adviser to Trump, his handling of the highly sensitive surveillance issue alarmed lawmakers from both parties. Some thought it seemed designed to protect the president.
“A lot of us were perplexed by the direction he took, which I think continues to puzzle some of us,” Himes said. “We Democrats felt personally fond of Devin, and therefore we were particularly troubled when things took a turn toward the bizarre.”
A fellow Californian on the House Intelligence panel, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, said Nunes should leave the committee altogether. Numerous Democrats demanded he recuse himself from leading the Russia probe, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. said on NBC’s “Today Show” that Nunes had “gone off on a lark by himself, sort of a Inspector Clouseau investigation.”
Despite the baselessness of the charges, I believe it is in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress for me to have Rep. Mike Conaway, with assistance from Reps. Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney, temporarily take charge of the committee’s Russia investigation while the House Ethics Committee looks into this matter.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., April 6, 2017
On April 6, Nunes surrendered the reins of the Russian investigation. The same day, the 10-member House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating “public allegations that . . . Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information, in violation of House rules, law, regulations or other standards of conduct.”
The current investigation of Nunes is an initial fact-finding, which is not uncommon. During the previous two-year Congress, the panel reported having undertaken 78 fact-finding cases. The next step, if it gets that far, could be establishing an investigative subcommittee, as happened only four times in the last Congress.
House Ethics Committee investigations involving the alleged release of classified information are very rare. Committee reports and summaries appear to indicate that the last one related to classified information was dismissed, after two months, in 1975.
If they do gain traction, investigations can become lengthy and expensive. Surplus campaign funds can be used to pay legal expenses in such cases; Nunes declined to say whether he’s hired an attorney, and his next campaign disclosure filing won’t be filed for several months.
“I do not believe in any way, shape or form he would have knowingly done anything outside the boundaries of law in the capacity of Intelligence Committee chairman or with regard to a Trump-Russia investigation,” said Michael Der Manouel, a Republican activist and chair of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County.
Even so, the experience has crimped how Nunes handles the press, among other things. He now declines to speak on the record with reporters from McClatchy, which includes The Fresno Bee and The Sacramento Bee, because of what he considers unfair coverage. In response to oral questions recently, he said he would issue a written statement.
Subsequently presented with written questions, he declined to answer them, as well.
“I have not spoken to Devin in quite some time, but have noticed that he’s been very quiet lately in terms of public statements and appearances,” Der Manouel said.
Day-to-day work nonetheless persists, requiring interaction with sometimes-critical colleagues.
On March 29, for instance, Nunes introduced a bipartisan bill that would revise reimbursements for ambulatory surgical centers. One of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors, Rep. John Garamendi of California, said a week later that he was “appalled” at the way the House was handling the Russia investigation, and he’s called for an independent inquiry outside of the Intelligence panel.
The Intelligence Committee’s Democrats themselves had vociferously called for Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Though Himes said “most of us have been able to put that in a box” so it doesn’t interfere with other work, the members’ up-close personal interactions occur behind the committee’s closed doors.
“My hope is that we go back to a functioning, bipartisan group dealing with national security,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said in an interview.
Toward that end, on May 3, the House approved the 84-page intelligence authorization bill as part of a larger spending package that keeps the federal government operating through September. An earlier version passed the House by a quick voice vote last December, exemplifying the committee’s work when it’s firing on all cylinders.
The bill “is the most critical legislation in Congress for providing the intelligence community with the resources and authorities it needs to protect the American people from terrorists, cyber-attacks and hostile nation-states,” Nunes said in a statement.