Rep. Devin Nunes obviously fancies himself Jason Bourne. To sneak onto the White House grounds for that rendezvous with an unnamed source last week, he switched cars and ditched aides, vanishing into the night.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., looks at him and sees a different character. Graham said on the “Today” show on Tuesday that Nunes was bumbling his way though something of an “Inspector Clouseau investigation,” a reference to the fantastically inept protagonist of the “Pink Panther” comedies.
I salute Graham’s movie vocabulary. I quibble with his metaphor. While Clouseau was a benign fool, there’s nothing benign about Nunes’ foolishness.
As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes, R-Tulare, is a principal sleuth in the paramount inquiry into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and from all appearances, he either doesn’t want to know the answer or has determined it already – in President Donald Trump’s favor.
Democrats are rightly calling on him to recuse himself. They’ve been joined in their alarm by Graham and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. As Graham summoned the specter of Clouseau, McCain said on “CBS This Morning” that “something’s got to change.”
“Otherwise,” he continued, “the whole effort in the House of Representatives will lose credibility.”
But Nunes was defiant when asked by reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday whether he would continue to guide that effort, saying, “Why would I not?”
Oh, many reasons.
Let’s start here: The Intelligence Committee isn’t supposed to be a partisan arm of the majority party (though it has behaved that way in the past). And any collusion with the White House is a betrayal of its special oversight role.
But Nunes is so deep in the tank for Trump that he needs scuba gear. With his words and deeds, he has labored mightily to redirect attention from Trump’s alleged wrongdoing to his claims of persecution, recasting villain as victim. It’s Trump’s gratitude that he’s after, not the truth.
When politicians on both sides of the aisle upbraided Trump for his baseless accusations about the wiretapping of Trump Tower, Nunes swooped in to say, “I don’t think we should attack the president for tweeting.” But Twitter was hardly the issue. The president’s paranoid hallucinations were.
When James Comey, the FBI director, appeared before Nunes’ committee to confirm his own agency’s investigation into Trump-Russia ties, Nunes changed the subject to the media’s acquisition of classified information, going on about leaks, leaks, leaks. He sounded more like a plumber than a politician.
And when Nunes gathered reporters around him two days later, it was to say that he’d seen secret documents suggesting that people around Trump may indeed have been subject to surveillance by our government.
This was Nunes at his most irresponsible. To the casual listener, he was insinuating that Trump’s wiretapping charges weren’t so very far from the mark. But they were, and Nunes had to acknowledge that as he clarified his remarks. He was talking about the surveillance of Americans who happened to be in contact with foreign players whose communications were the real subjects of concern. He had no evidence – zilch – of any eavesdropping that targeted Trump.
This week we learned that Nunes got that information during that rendezvous, details of which he has not provided to his fellow committee members, just as he failed to share the information itself with Democrats on the committee before he went public with it.
All of this is irregular enough to peg him as a puppet of the Trump administration or a complete boob. Either way, he has surrendered his investigation’s integrity – and his own.
A Republican insider who once worked closely with him described him to me as an “overeager goofball” who can’t see “the line between ingratiating and stupid.” The insider said that Nunes crossed that line with John Boehner, the former House speaker, who gave him the committee chairmanship but grew weary of Nunes’ indiscriminate pep and constant bumming of his cigarettes.
My source wondered why Paul Ryan hadn’t kept a closer watch on Nunes, given his shortcomings. “No one is asking him to bring the potato salad to the Mensa picnic,” my source said.
Salad and more salad: Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, complained to reporters Tuesday afternoon that “if the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection.”
Spicer is right that we’re obsessed with Russia, wrong that it’s as random as condiments. We’re obsessed because every signal from the administration and its allies is that they don’t want us looking any further or any closer, and Nunes’ Bourne identity is the most glaring signal of all.
If Trump and his associates have nothing to hide, why all the cloak and dagger? And why such clumsiness?