Democrats called Devin Nunes ‘almost criminal.’ There’s no sign they’ll investigate him

Democrats railed against Rep. Devin Nunes during his time as House Intelligence Committee chairman, but now that they hold power, don’t expect them to wield it against him.

They’ve turned their attention – and their subpoenas – to members of the Trump administration as Democrats continue to investigate alleged foreign interference with the 2016 election, President Donald Trump’s responses to Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s report and other investigations into the Trump administration and campaign.

“There are other things for them to focus on,” said Robert Walker, a former chief counsel and staff director of the Senate and House ethics committees who is now an attorney at the DC firm Wiley Rein.

That means Democrats are unlikely to dig into a number of Nunes’ actions over the past two years that they have called unprecedented for the leader of the House Intelligence Committee.

Traditionally, lawmakers have characterized that post as a bipartisan one because of the sensitive nature of its work overseeing intelligence agencies.

Nunes changed the tone, Democrats say, by releasing a partisan memo that accused the Justice Department of misconduct with regard to how it launched its investigation into the Trump campaign.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi maintained as recently as March 28 that Nunes did not properly recuse himself from investigations related to the Trump administration while he was committee chairman.

At a recent press conference, she called his behavior “irresponsible, almost criminal.”

But Pelosi’s office did not respond to requests for comment from McClatchy. Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s office declined comment, and the offices of committee members from California Jackie Speier and Eric Swalwell did not respond on the record.

Nunes’ office also did not respond to a request for comment.

After Democrats won the House majority in November, Nunes lost his chairmanship but remains the top-ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee.

Nunes has continued to use the post to question the origins of the Mueller investigation and to support Trump. He told Fox News last month that he planned to send eight “criminal referrals” to Attorney General William Barr seeking inquiries into officials who Nunes believes acted improperly in Russia-related investigations.

Republicans on the Intelligence Committee in March wrote a letter demanding Rep. Schiff of California step down from his position as Intelligence Committee chairman, arguing that Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report showed that Schiff lacked credibility.

“At the end of the day, Chairman Nunes has been correct in his assessments. People criticized the Nunes memo, but it made clear the abuses that were being done” by the Justice Department, Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas told McClatchy in March.

Schiff remains House Intelligence Committee chairman and told Axios last week that he was reviewing his options to compel Trump administration officials to comply with congressional subpoenas.

“Much as I like the visual of [throwing people in jail], I think it’s far more practical to consider levying individual fines on the person — not the office — until they comply. You could fine someone $25,000 a day until they comply. You can do that. We’re looking through the history and studying the law to make sure we’re on solid ground,” Schiff told Axios last week.

It’s unclear that the Intelligence Committee could punish Nunes even if it found something objectionable.

Democrats could conduct an investigation and publish the findings, but only Nunes’ own party could remove him from the committee and censuring him would take a majority vote in the full House.

“They could make a statement, but it would be somewhat of an empty gesture,” Walker said. “I’m not aware of any disciplinary measures the committee majority could take against the committee ranking member. The Intelligence Committee’s rules allow for committee disciplinary action against staff, but not against committee members.”

Nunes and Schiff have shown they can work together at times.

Since the redacted Mueller report was released, the two have sent bipartisan letters to the Department of Justice repeatedly demanding “all materials ... obtained or produced by the Special Counsel’s Office in the course of the investigation.” They are both threatening to subpoena Justice leaders over the information.

That kind of cooperation used to be more of the norm in the committee, which was frequently praised for its bipartisan ways under Schiff and Nunes — until 2017. Democrats had two major issues with Nunes since then.

In March 2017, after holding a joint press conference with Schiff saying there was no evidence that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower — as Trump had claimed — Nunes a week later reversed course. He said in a solo press conference that there was troubling evidence, and he was accused of leaking investigation material from the Intelligence Committee to the White House.

“The chairman will either need to decide if he’s leading an investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House,” Schiff told reporters in his own press conference the same day. “Because he cannot do both.”

Amid Democrats’ outrage, Nunes publicly recused himself from that investigation while the House Committee on Ethics looked into the allegations against him. Eight months later, the committee cleared him.

The second major incident concerned the infamous Nunes memo, when Nunes in February 2018 published a 4-page document that accused the FBI and Department of Justice of improperly obtaining a FISA warrant to surveil Carter Page, an adviser to the Trump campaign.

Democrats on the committee accused Nunes of blatant partisanship, and both Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, unsuccessfully called on then-Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to demote Nunes.

The memo was one of the key moments that established Nunes’ reputation as one of Trump’s closest allies. That renown fueled an unexpectedly strong effort to unseat Nunes last year by Democrat Andrew Janz, who raised more than $9 million to challenge the congressman. Democrats have listed Nunes as one of their top targets to unseat in 2020.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.