California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes seemed to set his partisan gloves aside when he stepped into the national ring as the new chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in 2015.
Now, upending the committee’s most politically sensitive investigation, the 43-year-old native of the rural San Joaquin Valley has antagonized the panel’s Democrats, who until now have worked closely alongside him. While Nunes offered his colleagues a muted private apology Thursday, lingering turmoil could ripple well beyond the damage to Nunes’s own reputation.
“Our investigation is on life support,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., an intelligence committee member, said in an interview Thursday, calling the actions by Nunes “a betrayal of the independence we’re expected to demonstrate.”
The unusual clash first erupted Wednesday, when Nunes surprised intelligence committee Democrats with his unilateral announcement that he would be personally briefing President Donald Trump on reports about alleged surveillance activities.
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“I recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition,” Nunes advised reporters Wednesday, adding later that “the president needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there. And I have a duty to tell him that.”
The intelligence panel’s senior Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, quickly voiced “grave concerns” about Nunes’s actions. Swalwell added they had “gravely damaged the (committee) investigation’s credibility.” Another intelligence panel member, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., suggested Wednesday that the Nunes maneuver could be a “weapon of mass distraction” meant to divert attention from other Trump-related controversies.
If the chairman is going to continue to go to the White House instead of to the committee, there’s no way we can have this investigation.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
After facing 24 hours of the most sustained criticism of his intelligence committee chairmanship, Nunes on Thursday morning apologized “in a generic way” behind closed doors, Speier told CNN. She added to reporters that “over the next few days we're going to assess whether or not we feel confident” in Nunes’s leadership.
“It was a judgment call on my part,” Nunes told reporters assembled Thursday in the Capitol. “Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the wrong one, but you’ve got to stick by the decisions you make.”
Swalwell added that he has largely “enjoyed the bipartisan work on the committee,” and emphasized that Nunes’s overall performance as intelligence committee chair “should not be judged on his worst day.”
While partisan flame-throwing is routine on Capitol Hill, members of the House intelligence panel have prided themselves on their bipartisan civility, forged in closed-door hearings and austere foreign travel. Last November, for instance, Nunes and Schiff allied in moving the fiscal 2017 intelligence authorization bill through the House on a 390-30 vote.
In a similar bipartisan vein, all of the House intelligence committee’s Democrats joined Republicans in approving a fiscal 2016 intelligence authorization bill by voice vote. Schiff and Nunes have stood together on countless occasions, sometimes appearing side-by-side even when they’re offering different takes on intelligence developments.
“We all understand the importance of our responsibilities, particularly with all that is going on in the world, and want to get things done,” Schiff said in an interview last year.
When he was tapped for the intelligence committee post by then-House Speaker John Boehner, Nunes was known more for his work on free trade and California water legislation, as well as his occasionally fierce rhetoric. Since first winning election in 2002 as one of the House’s youngest members, he regularly denounced those he called “radical, extreme environmentalists,” clashed with Northern California Democrats and blasted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. as being allied with “radicals.”
"I've been very disappointed in his approach, to hit and hit," Feinstein said in a 2009 interview. "I just see him as striking out blindly, and that's really not helpful."
The combative approach didn’t hurt Nunes among his constituents in a Fresno and Tulare county district where Republicans enjoy a 43-33 percent voter registration advantage over Democrats. Last November, Nunes beat a significantly underfunded Democrat by a 68-32 percent margin.
In recent years, moreover, Feinstein and Nunes have grown closer. As chair and then ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Feinstein has negotiated intelligence bills with her House counterparts. The two also came together on a farmer-friendly California water bill last year.
Still, Nunes’s high-profile misstep this week emboldens those who want an independent investigation of alleged Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The critics can now argue that Nunes, a member of Trump’s presidential transition team, has forfeited the semblance of a neutral fact-finder.
“The only way to get a comprehensive review of what happened is to have an independent commission,” Swalwell said.
Politically, Nunes has also given himself a self-inflicted wound that his opponents and rivals can exploit in the future. Seizing the opportunity, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., on Thursday insisted that the Russian investigation “must be taken out of Chairman Nunes’s hands.”
“Nunes has now used a national platform to embarrass not only himself but also his Central Valley district,” declared Michael D. Evans, chair of the Fresno County Democratic Party.
Rhetorical barbs aside, the next substantive public test could come Tuesday, when Nunes leads a rare open hearing of the House intelligence committee. Before then, panel Democrats say they want to see in private the surveillance information that Nunes presented to the White House.