Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, appears to have moved from criticizing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to strategizing about how to blunt its impact should it imperil President Donald Trump. The most promising instrument in this effort, he suggested in unfiltered remarks last month, is retaining a GOP-controlled Congress.
Even if he had been speaking publicly, the eight-term Republican might not have chosen his words differently. He is an adamantly pro-Trump lawmaker who in February released a memorandum accusing the intelligence community of conspiring against the president. In May, he sought documents from the Justice Department -- as part of his investigation into the law enforcement officials leading the Russia inquiry -- that senior intelligence officials maintained could expose a top source and endanger lives.
But it was at a private fundraiser for a Republican colleague that Nunes tied the investigation to the midterm elections this fall. In comments captured in an audio recording aired Wednesday by The Rachel Maddow Show, Nunes laid out in stark terms the rationale for preserving the GOP majority in Congress.
"If Sessions won't unrecuse and Mueller won't clear the president, we're the only ones, which is really the danger," Nunes said at an event for Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, referring to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, and Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Sessions said last year that he would keep his distance from inquiries related to the 2016 election owing to his role in Trump's campaign -- a move that has frustrated the president, leading him to blame his own attorney general for the "Russian Witch Hunt Hoax."
"I mean, we have to keep all these seats," Nunes added. "We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away."
Maddow said on her show that the tape was made by a progressive organization called Fuse Washington that paid for entrance into the fundraiser, held on July 30 in Spokane, Wash. A spokesman for Nunes didn't return a request for comment sent late Wednesday.
The remarks drew immediate rebuke from Democrats. Rep. Ted Lieu, also of California, called on Nunes to resign, saying his comments ran counter to the oath of office he had taken upon entering Congress.
"Under our Constitution, the duty of Congress is not to clear the President. The duty of Congress is to be a check and balance on the Executive Branch, and to pursue the facts wherever they may lead.
"Devin Nunes should resign for perverting the oath he took," Lieu tweeted.
Others observed that the lawmaker's actions over the past year made his comments unsurprising. "After all," tweeted University of Texas Law School professor Steve Vladeck, "this has been the only explanation -- for quite some time -- for his ridiculous behavior on everything from the unmasking scandal" to the "Rosenstein impeachment," referring to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. Nunes announced last year that he would step aside from his own committee's investigation into Russian interference after the House Ethics Committee said it was examining allegations that he "may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information." He has denied wrongdoing.
Nunes made several other noteworthy statements to the audience of GOP donors, also concerning the Russia investigation and its supervision.
He blamed the Senate's schedule -- and the interest in swiftly confirming Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court -- for the failure of the House to take up impeachment proceedings against Rosenstein. Just days before Nunes' private remarks in Washington state, a group of conservative lawmakers introduced a resolution calling for Rosenstein's impeachment, though they stopped short of forcing a vote on the matter. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., responded by saying he opposed the effort and reaffirmed his belief that Justice Department officials were acting appropriately.
But Nunes said that resistance to Rosenstein's impeachment was mostly about scheduling.
"I've said publicly Rosenstein deserves to be impeached," Nunes said. "I don't think you're gonna get any argument from most of our colleagues. The question is the timing of it right before the election."
A Section on 08/10/2018
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