The frenzy over Nunes’s mysterious visit to the White House grounds increasingly (and ironically) seems to parallel the frenzy over the underlying probe into Trump associates’ contacts with Russia. It smells fishy, but when push comes to shove, no one can say what wrongdoing supposedly occurred.
But that’s the point of recusal, right? When that fishy smell starts to permeate an investigation, calling its credibility into question, you clear it out by asking the source of it to step away. The question in Nunes’s case is whether there’s now a sufficient appearance of impropriety — irrespective of whether actual impropriety occurred — to compel him to stand aside as chairman of the House Intel Committee in this matter. Yup, say Democrats, predictably. Nope, says Nunes, and Trey Gowdy, and Paul Ryan, predictably. Here’s Nunes defending himself during a scrum with reporters in the Capitol hallway this morning.
Taken in isolation, I don’t think Nunes’s trip to the White House grounds (specifically, the executive office building) to review executive-branch intel on whether Trump associates were incidentally surveilled and “unmasked” would have seemed fishy. It’s the other decisions he made surrounding that decision that make it seem suspicious. Why didn’t he bring Adam Schiff or some other Democrat on the Intel Committee along with him? Why did he call a press conference the next day to announce his findings before he’d informed the other Committee members of what he’d found? Why did he then go running off to the White House to brief Trump personally? This is the House’s de facto chief investigator into the Russiagate matter, which involves the question of whether Russian officials were coordinating with Trump associates during the campaign. Even if, as Nunes claims, the incidental intel he reviewed about surveillance of Trump transition staffers is unrelated to Russiagate, it still makes for strange optics under the circumstances to have him assisting Trump on an intelligence matter. Is he a White House surrogate or the head of an adversarial committee in a rival, independent branch charged with checking the president?
For that matter, as Michael Warren asked, why did Trump need Nunes to brief him on the material Nunes had found on incidental surveillance? If that intel was on the White House grounds, on executive-branch servers, it was already available to Trump’s team. They could have found it and briefed the president on it at any time. And how did Nunes supposedly get into a secure facility in the executive office building, on the White House grounds, without anyone on Trump’s staff knowing he was there or signing him in, as Nunes claims? Compounding all of these suspicions is the fact that Nunes was a member of Trump’s transition team and thus has a bit more allegiance to Trump than the average member of Congress. You don’t have to reach far to cook up a theory in which it was actually Team Trump that discovered the intelligence on incidental surveillance and then, instead of publicizing it themselves, decided to hand it off to Nunes to reveal it publicly in order to make it seem as though a neutral congressional investigator had discovered it. There’s nothing inherently improper about that — after an avalanche of accusatory leaks against him, go figure that Trump and his team might want to do a little leaking themselves — but again, as the head of a Committee that’s pursuing an investigation that may implicate people in the White House, it’s bizarre that Nunes would call his own independence into question by doing the White House that favor. If it happened that way, that is. But if it did, if Nunes really was willing to publicize intel the White House had handed him as a favor to Trump, what reason is there to think he’ll pursue the Russiagate inquiry diligently if it happens to lead to someone in the White House? This is why Democrats want him out.
Here’s Lindsey Graham marveling at Nunes’s “Inspector Clouseau” investigation.