Political Notebook

Devin Nunes’ defense of ousted Michael Flynn raises his profile – and anger against him

Congressman Devin Nunes, the Republican from Tulare whose national profile has been rising as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is suddenly facing a firestorm of controversy in Washington, D.C., unlike anything he has faced in his 14 years in Congress.

Nunes was a staunch defender of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who resigned Monday after reports surfaced that intelligence officials had recorded his telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States before President Donald Trump took office.

Flynn appears to have been less than forthcoming with administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about whether he told the ambassador U.S. sanctions might be lifted.

The news report was reportedly based on a leak from the intelligence community, which raised Nunes’ ire.

“I expect for the FBI to tell me what is going on, and they better have a good answer,” Nunes said in a Capitol hallway interview with reporters, including the Washingon Post. “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded.”

The statement seemed to indicate that Nunes would not look into what Flynn discussed with the ambassador, but that’s not the case, Jack Langer, his press secretary, said Wednesday.

“We’re not excluding the possibility of probing anything,” he said. “That includes looking into the Flynn situation.”

But “it’s highly problematic we would request the transcript” of Flynn’s telephone conversation, he said, assuming one exists as news reports indicate.

Nunes, who has been free to speak his mind without worry of major local backlash because he comes from a safe district that includes Visalia, Clovis, part of Fresno and acres of farm country where support for him is strong, has begun hearing local criticism since Trump’s election. He was first elected in 2002 and has won election eight times against token Democratic opposition.

He supported Trump for president and helped arrange a campaign fundraiser in Tulare that reportedly raised more than $1 million. He also served on the transition team that recommended Flynn for national security adviser.

Now he’s sought out by the national media.

“When Devin is walking around here, walking from A to B, reporters come up to him and ask for comment,” Langer said.

Nunes’ sudden vault into the headlines in Washington gave critics in California an opening. A rally was held Wednesday at his Clovis office by a group called the Courage Campaign, which called for his resignation as chairman of the intelligence committee.

Chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Nunes has got to go,” about 20 demonstrators stood outside Nunes’ Clovis office Wednesday, holding signs demanding investigations of Trump’s Russian ties or for Nunes to resign from his committee post if he doesn’t investigate the Russian ties.

Unlike a recent demonstration, there were no counter protesters for Trump.

Kate Connor of Courage Campaign Fresno said the group had an appointment scheduled Wednesday afternoon with a Nunes staffer that was canceled earlier in the day.

“I was not given a reason why,” Connor said.

She said the group has started a petition to get Nunes to schedule a town hall meeting anywhere in his district.

“He will not meet with his constituents. He is infamous for that,” Connor said.

In a statement about the demonstration, Nunes noted that the protest group is based in Los Angeles. He was not available for an interview Wednesday.

“It’s always gratifying to see people expressing their opinions on political issues, whether they support me or not,” Nunes said in the statement.

Another rally was held at the Visalia office Wednesday morning, although that one was focused on immigration issues and access to health care.

Hours before Flynn resigned, Nunes appeared on Fox News and gave a ringing endorsement of the retired general: “He’s probably the best intelligence officer of his generation,” he said.

Nunes also seemed to dismiss what Flynn might have told the Russian ambassador by telling a Bloomberg reporter, “There’s a lot of nothing there.”

But Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, the ranking Democratic member of the intelligence committee, issued a statement after Flynn resigned indicating he thinks the opposite.

“(T)he Trump administration has yet to be forthcoming about who was aware of Flynn’s conversations with the Ambassador and whether he was acting on the instructions of the President or any other officials, or with their knowledge,” the statement said.

What Flynn might have said is the talk of the Capitol. CNN reported that Sen. Mitch McConnell said Tuesday it is “highly likely” the Senate intelligence committee will investigate Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador.

Michael Der Manouel, a Fresno Republican, said he has not spoken with Nunes but believes he is trying to defend the Trump administration from attacks coming from within the bureaucracy by those who oppose the kind of disruptive change that Trump advocates.

“You have a president that took on the partisan swamp,” he said. “Devin is saying, they’re going to come after everybody.”

Michael D. Evans, chairman of the Fresno County Democratic Party, said Nunes is not the right person to head the intelligence committee.

“I read the book (‘Restoring the Republic: A Clear, Concise, and Colorful Blueprint for America’s Future’) he wrote a number of years ago,” Evans said. “I saw how surprisingly lightweight he is. This is a person who does not bring a lot to the table. He’s overwhelmed in his position and is not effectively representing his constituents.”

Staff reporter Marc Benjamin contributed to the story. Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold