On Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) approved seven Congressional subpoenas; four of those issued related to the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2015 election and possible collusion with the Donald Trump campaign. Nunes, the Wall Street Journal reports, signed those despite once declaring he would “step aside” from the House Russia probe.
The remaining three related to a separate investigation into the “unmasking” of Trump transition officials under Barack Obama’s administration. According to the Journal, the separation of those two investigations affords Nunes broad legal authority to issue subpoenas on his own. A Democratic committee aide said that “action would have been taken without the minority [Democrats’] agreement.”
Ranking Democratic member Adam Schiff (D-CA) on Thursday confirmed that report.
"The Committee rules provide that the chair has to sign the subpoenas unless that authority is delegated to someone else,” Schiff told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, insisting that had not occurred in this case.
Speaking with CNN, Schiff acknowledged Nunes acted “on his own initiative and without consultation” with Democrats in issuing those three subpoenas, arguing it’s a sign the White House “wishes to push away from the Russia investigation and direct attention in other places,” including the “unmasking” issue.
Rep. Adam Schiff says Rep. Devin Nunes issued subpoenas "without consultation" with his Democratic colleagues https://t.co/NWu2raOGC2
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) June 1, 2017
This is not the first time Nunes engaged in conduct seemingly on behalf of the White House, and by all indications, it won’t be his last. Here's a (fairly exhaustive) look at the tangled web the House Intel chair weaved.
Last November, Nunes accepted a key position on the Trump transition team’s executive committee, becoming an influential player at the center of major administrative decisions. Less than two months later, Donald Trump became president of the United States.
On Jan. 25, the House Intelligence Committee announced “a bipartisan inquiry” into active measures taken by Russia to influence the 2016 election. The following day, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House that Flynn was likely compromised by his contacts with Russian officials. Trump fired Yates four days after that warning.
A full 18 days after Yates’ warning, on Feb. 13, Flynn resigned from his role as national security adviser after the White House claimed he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s downfall was sparked by a series of classified leaks to major publications, including the Times and the Washington Post.
One day after Flynn's resignation, the New York Times reported that former Trump transition vice chair—and newly appointed national security adviser—Mike Flynn was being examined by the F.B.I along with former Trump aide Carter Page and longtime political ally Roger Stone.
In the wake of that Times article, the White House scrambled to convince authoritative figures to push back on the report. One such person was former FBI Director James Comey, who’s expected to testify next Thursday that the president asked him that very evening to end the investigation into Flynn. Comey declined to do so.
But one person who did not decline to do so was Nunes, even telling White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer he would make calls to reporters himself. “It just seems like there’s a lot of nothing there,” Nunes told Bloomberg. (Months later, on May 17, the Times would report that at least one member of the Trump transition team was made aware on Jan 4—by Flynn himself—that the future national security adviser was under federal investigation).
The House Intel chair declined to probe the issue further, arguing, “I have to be very careful not to start hunting down Americans and bringing them before the legislative branch of government just because they appeared in a newspaper story as being a friend of some foreign government.”
Nunes also continued to steer the subject of the probe away from the Trump-Russia connection. “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded,” Nunes told the Post when the Flynn story dropped.
As investigative journalists began probing the Trump team’s possible contacts with Russian officials, ramping up the heat on multiple Congressional inquiries, Nunes warned reporters to “be careful” about asking Russian officials to comment on contacts they may have had with Trump officials.
"Do you want us to conduct an investigation on you?" he asked reporters.
As Nunes attempted to keep the focus of the Russia probe on "unmasking," a power struggle emerged within the National Security Council—once headed by ousted National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. Trump had already disrupted the structure of the NSC. On Jan. 29, he elevated chief White House strategist Steve Bannon to the cabinet-level “principles committee"—an unprecedented and “bizarre” move, according to one State Department official.
Trump tapped H.R. McMaster to fill the roll of national security adviser and head the NSC. Politico reports McMaster immediately went to work rolling back changes made by Flynn. One of the targets of McMaster’s shakeup was Ezra Cohen-Watnick, “a 30-year-old version of Michael Flynn” who shares his mentor’s flair for conspiracy theories (Cohen-Watnick has tweeted about “[John] Podesta’s obsession with the occult,” among other anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracies, Newsweek reports). He is also tasked with the enormous job of coordinating U.S. intelligence operations with the White House and Congress.
Cohen-Watnick had a meteoric rise to the ranks of the National Security Council, Newsweek reports. He met Flynn at the Defense Intelligence Agency, then followed him to the Trump transition team, ultimately landing on the NSC.
“He makes sure they carry out the president’s agenda,” a former White House National Security Council official told Newsweek.
Following Flynn’s departure, McMaster sought to sideline Cohen-Watnick, over fears he was too loyal to the departed national security adviser (Cohen-Watnick belongs to a “clique” of national security staffers referred to as the “Flynnstones” and reportedly “saw eye to eye” with Fynn). Cohen-Watnick appealed directly to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Bannon. The pair intervened on Cohen-Watnick’s behalf and on Mar.13, the 30-year-old arbiter of national security was allowed to stay on as senior director, despite concerns from at least one official that he’s trying to “operationalize” the NSC.
Other Flynn appointees were allowed to stay on the NSC, including Michael Ellis—a former general counsel to none other than Rep. Devin Nunes. On Feb. 2, Ellis, 32, was named by Flynn as deputy assistant to the rresident, NSC Legal Advisor, and deputy counsel to the president for National Security Affairs.
That same day, a Politico report indicated growing frustrations over a "wall" within the NSC. Career staffers asked to stay on under Trump complained "they have been emasculated and have no authority.”
“Many are heading for the exits,” one source said.
Among the consternation was a growing divid between a Flynn “inner circle” that included John Eisenberg, a former Justice Department official who served as the NSC's top legal adviser.
Meanwhile, a separate scandal erupted at the White House, as President Trump tweeted his now-infamous Mar. 4 claim that former president Barack Obama “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the 2016 election.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,” Trump wrote. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
Aides were quick to insist the president meant the "wiretapped" phrasing as a broader term for surveillance, but provided no evidence to back up Trump's claim.
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1488627320.0
On Mar. 20, in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, FBI Director Comey confirmed a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, as well as possible collusion with Trump officials. Comey also denied the existence of any evidence that would substantiate the president’s wiretap claim.
The day after Comey’s testimony, Nunes reportedly met with Cohen-Watnick, Ellis and Eisenberg on White House grounds to obtain information about Obama administration officials “unmasking” members of the Trump transition team. Nunes has refused to comment on his sourcing, and Press Secretary Spicer has failed to provide those names to reporters—despite promising to look into the matter. The White House later said they would not make visitor logs public, citing national security.
The day after his clandestine meeting with three Flynn loyalists at the White House, Nunes hastily called a press conference to decree Obama-era “unmasking.” Nunes himself (not to mention Republicans and Democrats who’ve viewed the documents Nunes obtained that night) has admitted the information appears to have been legally collected. He’s also unsure whether those who were “unmasked” were communicating from Trump Tower has repeatedly insisted the conversations had “nothing” to do with Russia.
Nunes has stated—unequivocally—that he's yet to see evidence to support Trump’s wire tap tweets.
And yet the president, responding to Nunes’ press conference, said he felt “somewhat” vindicated by it. Trump later expanded his opinion on the matter to include the suggestion that former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice may have committed a crime. “I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story,” Trump told the Times.
On April 5, Trump removed Bannon from the NSC. In a statement, the chief White House strategist insisted, after ten short weeks, his mission was complete (though in private he reportedly fought to maintain his role on the influence council).
“Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration,” Bannon said in a statement. “I was put on the NSC with General Flynn to ensure that it was de-operationalized. General McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”
The next day, amid growing calls for his recusal, Nunes “stepped aside” from the House Intelligence Committee probe and designated two fellow representatives to “temporarily take charge” of the investigation. That same day, the Ethics Committee announced it would investigate whether Nunes violated federal law and chamber rules with his press conference.
On April 7, during a speech to fellow California Republicans, Nunes touted his clandestine meeting as strategic, insisting there was a “method" to his decision.
“Guess what?” Nunes said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “When these ethics charges are gone, then I’m going to be back again. I would like to thank you all for all your support. I know a lot of you are disappointed, but there is a method to why I did this.”
On May 18, CNN reported that despite “stepping aside,” Nunes is still reviewing intelligence on Russia.
"I don't talk about intelligence," Nunes told CNN when asked why he was still participating in the inquiry.
But Nunes will presumably have to talk about intelligence, at least once he receives the information he unilaterally requested about the Obama administration’s “unmasking” of Trump transition officials.
"He didn't 'recuse' himself,” an aide told CNN, pointing to Nunes’ technical language in his April 6 statement. “That has a very specific legal definition and isn't accurate here.”
If there was ever any question about Nunes’ goal in the House Russia probe, that ended yesterday with his “nothing to see here—look over there” approach. He’s a smoke-and-mirrors illusionist, and—as Rep. Schiff said Thursday—it’s important not to get distracted.