Devin Nunes is mostly silent at closed impeachment hearings, transcripts show

Congressional rules put Rep. Devin Nunes in a seat to be one of President Donald Trump’s top defenders against impeachment, but newly released transcripts show the California Republican has been turning that power over to other GOP lawmakers.

Nunes, R-Tulare, has asked few questions of witnesses for the impeachment inquiry called before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees, the transcripts show. He also missed at least one session with an impeachment witness.

His participation could be significant as Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, has discussed reorganizing the House Intelligence Committee during the impeachment inquiry.

“If Democrats are going to turn Intel into the impeachment committee, I am going to make adjustments to that committee accordingly, for a short period of time,” McCarthy told Politico on Tuesday.

McCarthy’s office confirmed the statement to Politico but did not respond to a request for comment on whether that reorganization would involve changing Nunes’ role on the Intelligence Committee.

CBS News first reported that McCarthy was considering putting Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, on the Intelligence Committee. Jordan has been an active participant in the closed-door impeachment hearings so far, according to the transcripts, and Nunes has asked Jordan to make opening statements for Republicans at some of the sessions.

Jordan has had a role in the witness interviews because he is the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee. Jordan would have less room to question witnesses at public hearings on impeachment starting next week at the House Intelligence Committee. Those rules place most of that power with Nunes, the committee’s ranking Republican member.

Jordan’s top investigator, Steve Castor, has taken the lead in questioning witnesses for the Republican side. He is not a member of Nunes’ staff.

It’s not clear why Nunes ceded the lead questioning to Jordan. Nunes did not respond to a request for comment.

“A possible explanation is (Nunes is) just stretched so thin and he doesn’t feel comfortable going into the level of detail that this requires,” said Casey Burgat, a senior fellow at the libertarian R Street Institute who studies Congress. “It’s also possible he doesn’t see a role for himself to be a public defender in these types of hearings, so I’m interested to see if that changes next week.”

So far, Democrats leading the inquiry have released transcripts of interviews with five diplomats. The inquiry centers on allegations that Trump misused his power by pressuring Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate business dealings by the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The transcripts released so far have been of testimony by Marie Yovanovitch, ambassador to Ukraine; P. Michael McKinley, senior adviser to the secretary of state; Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union; Kurt Volker, the former United States representative for Ukraine negotiations; and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

Nunes was not present for Yovanovitch’s testimony on Oct. 11, was present but said nothing during McKinley’s testimony on Oct. 16 and asked no questions of Volker on Oct. 3.

Nunes’ questions to Sondland and Taylor centered on the so-called Steele dossier, a file of political research regarding Trump collected by former British spy Christopher Steele at the behest of groups working for 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The file contained salacious tips about Trump from foreign sources.

Nunes and other Republicans have argued Steele shared the document with the FBI to damage Trump’s presidency, which contributed to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference with the 2016 election.

Nunes in his questioning suggested that people in Ukraine were sources for Steele, and that Trump asked Zelensky to open an investigation partly to clear his name. Mueller’s investigation led to indictments against 34 people, including former Trump campaign manger Paul Manafort and Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

“The fact of the matter is the Ukrainians decided to get involved in politics and be, in almost all cases, supportive of the Democrats,” Nunes said to Taylor.

The chief lawyer for Democrats in the room, Daniel Goldman, also revealed that Nunes had met with Sondland in Brussels in mid-August. When questioned by Goldman, Sondland said he did not remember Ukraine coming up during that meeting, and it had only been him and Nunes there.

“I think it was just a, you know, shoot-the-breeze sort of conversation, as I recall,” Sondland testified. “Just sort of a friendly, he’s in town kind of thing.”

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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.