Congressman Devin Nunes may be in some seriously hot water. With an ethics probe looking into his handling of classified documents, calls for him to resign his position as Intel Committee chair from both sides of the aisle, and cries from constituents for his attention, Nunes has gone quiet. That roaring silence is leading to a lot of rumor, speculation and even a serious challenge at the polls next year.
White House Visits
In March, the career politician from Tulare found himself the center of national media attention when he announced to the press he had gone to the White House to brief President Donald Trump on what Nunes said was evidence conversations by Trump and his associates had been “incidentally collected” in classified intelligence reports during the period before Trump took office. That was on March 22.
It then became clear Nunes had actually obtained the reports during a secret visit to the White House grounds the night of March 21, from a source he refuses to name but who he termed a “whistleblower.” The New York Times, however, reported the source of Nunes’ information were two White House staffers, one of whom, Michael Ellis, a lawyer with the White House Counsel’s Office, was previously an attorney for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence which Nunes chairs.
Taking classified information to the president instead of sharing it first with his fellow committee members immediately caused a storm of criticism for Nunes. That storm grew more intense on March 27, when Nunes canceled an open hearing before the Intel Committee that would have featured testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former CIA Director John Brennen and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Nunes’ behavior led to wide-ranging calls for him to resign his chairmanship, or at minimum to recuse himself while the Intel Committee completes its investigation into the president’s possible ties to Russian interference with the US presidential election. On April 6, Nunes removed himself from his role in the Trump probe.
When asked about Nunes’ behavior, the president equivocated.
“I think maybe he did that for his own reason,” Trump said.
All of the controversy has led to an investigation of Nunes by the House Ethics Committee, with the central question becoming whether Nunes violated the Espionage Act when he revealed the source of the information he discussed at the White House to members of the press. The information, Nunes claims, came from intercepts authorized under a warrant from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA making disclosure of the contents and source a crime. A handful of days earlier, during Intel Committee questioning of former FBI Director James Comey, Nunes specifically asked if such a disclosure to the press was illegal.
“I remain extremely concerned about the widespread illegal leaks that you just referenced in your… in your testimony,” Nunes said. “Just for the record, though, I want to get this on the record. Does the unauthorized disclosure of classified information to the press violate 18 USC 793, a section of the Espionage Act that criminalizes improperly accessing, handling or transmitting national defense information?”
“Yes,” Comey said.
“Would an unauthorized disclosure of FISA-derived information to the press violate 18 USC 798,” Nunes asked, “a section of the Espionage Act that criminalizes the disclosure of information concerning the communication and intelligence activities of the United States?”
“Yes,” Comey said again.
Such violations carry prison sentences of up to 10 years. Nunes’ office denies he did anything illegal.
Whatever Nunes’ reason for his behavior is, no one outside his camp knows it. They’ve stopped talking about it. Mentions of Nunes in the national press now have headlines like Whatever Happened to Devin Nunes? His blog linked to a series of opinion pieces written to cast his behavior in the best light in late March while things were still hot for the congressman, but now it’s returned to articles praising Trump for defying those concerned with global warming and cheering the GOP’s dismantling of Obamacare. The only recent press release on Nunes’ website is his reaction to the House’s passage of the American Health Care Act on May 4. It follows the announcement on November 11 that Nunes was named to Trump’s transition team.
In the local media, his constituents clamor for Nunes’ attention and an explanation. The Congressman has not held a public forum to talk with voters in District 22 since August of 2016, when he appeared at a discussion on water issues in Tulare. He took calls during a radio talk show in late February and March, but Nunes skipped an independently organized town hall meeting in Visalia on April 19. He also refused to send a member of his staff.
The Congressman and Jack Langer, who serves as both Nunes’ and the House Intel Committee’s director of communications, have repeatedly said the Congressman will not attend open forums organized by his constituents because of the presence of “left-wing activist groups.”
Nunes has made a single public appearance since stepping down from the Trump-Russia investigation. He was the keynote speaker at the Lincoln Day Dinner in Martinsville, Indiana. The event was a fundraising dinner for the Morgan County Republican Party.
The Nunes camp is also limiting press access to the representative, and the tone of their messages has become increasingly hostile and paranoid.
Last month, Nunes cut off contact with a reporter from the Fresno Bee after the reporter visited Nunes’ neighborhood in Tulare for a story about the local reaction to his sudden presence in the media, the Bee reported.
In response to questions from a reporter for the Foothills Sun-Gazette, Langer called a litany of local groups, including Paint Poplar and Democratic Women of Kern, “left-wing activist groups,” that paper reported.
Most recently, Langer refused to pass along questions from a Valley Voice reporter who has worked with Nunes directly in the past. His office also did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.
In an email exchange between Langer and Valley Voice, Langer derided the reporter for parroting what he said were talking points from various “far-left groups.” The Voice reporter had submitted a list of 12 questions for Nunes to answer after Langer refused to facilitate a phone interview with the Congressman.
In turn, the Voice reporter agreed the paper would print the entirety of Nunes’ responses to the questions, a demand made by Langer. Langer then said the questions, many of which were asked at local forums, including the one Nunes refused to attend in Visalia on April 19, were the work of several unconnected national political groups and news outlets.
“No, of course I will not forward these to my boss,” Langer wrote.
Langer called the town hall in Visalia “a political protest against Rep. Nunes organized by Indivisible and other activist groups.” Asking the questions, Langer said, “shows the bad faith in your reporting.”
‘Let’s Talk About Russia’
A political uprising is also fomenting at home for Nunes. On Highway 198 in Visalia, a billboard featuring Nunes’ head-shot calls on him to hold a town hall meeting. “Let’s talk about Russia,” the message says in letters two feet high. The eight-term congressman is facing a serious challenge at the polls from Democrat Andrew Janz, a Visalia native who works as a prosecuting district attorney in Fresno County.
Janz presents as a qualified candidate on paper. The 33-year-old son of immigrant parents holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s in public administration, as well a law degree. He’s taking Nunes’ silence head on, using it to his advantage as the media and the public seek answers.
The nascent Janz campaign has focused on the current Congressman’s apparent desire to avoid any more of the limelight. Janz manned the megaphone last week to stump for supporters outside Nunes’ office in Clovis. The candidate, who told the crowd he was there to “repeal and replace” Nunes, organized the noontime event in opposition to Nunes’ support of the AHCA. Statewide news agencies picked up the story, and several national political news outlets have given Janz attention.
Janz also challenged Nunes directly. Last week, his campaign issued a statement calling Trump’s firing of former FBI Director Comey “very disturbing.” It singled out Nunes for his role in the increasingly troubling scandal.
“This firing also comes one day after former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates gave her testimony on Russian interference,” Janz wrote, “the same testimony my opponent, Rep. Devin Nunes sought to suppress prior to his recusal…”
He appealed to Nunes to join in him in condemning the firing. Nunes has stayed quiet.
Louis Campos, who ran against Nunes in 2016, likes what he’s seen so far of Janz.
“He’s very well spoken,” Campos said. “He has an air of humbleness to him, and he seems like someone who’s into learning the ropes of how to do something like this. It’s a big job.”
Nunes’ silence has allowed the rumor mill to churn freely. In what looks to be much ado about nothing, bloggers have reported Nunes is invested to the tune of $50,000 in a winery that does business in Russia with a partner who has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While the investment exists, the Russian ties really don’t.
The Alpha Omega Winery sold just a handful of cases of wine using a distributor whose website claims support for Putin.
The link to the Russian wine seller has been removed from the winery’s website.
What isn’t a rumor, according to Turkish news sources, is that Nunes attended a meeting with disgraced former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
At the time, Flynn was a security consultant to the Trump transition, and Nunes was a member of the transition team.
The meeting, which was reported on January 18 by the Daily Sabah, a Turkish newspaper, was held at a Trump hotel in Washington, DC.
Cavusoglu was the only foreign official attending, and the topic was US-Turkish relations, the paper reported. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was also scheduled to attend, they said.
Since that meeting, Flynn has fallen from grace with a resounding thud. It turns out Flynn was taking payments, more than $500,000 worth, to represent Turkey while he was working on Trump’s campaign. After just 24 days on the job, the former US Army lieutenant general was forced to resign when it was revealed he’d lied to Vice President Michael Pence and other White House officials about communications with the Russian ambassador. Flynn also registered retroactively as a foreign agent because of his work for Turkey, and he made an offer to cooperate with the FBI’s investigation in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Langer, in an email to the debunking website Snopes.com, confirmed Nunes was at the meeting and that he spoke to attendees. But he contradicted the idea Cavusoglu was the only foreign dignitary on hand. Thirty to 40 foreign officials were there for what he termed a breakfast meeting. Nunes, he said, did not meet privately with Flynn and the Turkish foreign minister.
Because Nunes and his office are no longer talking freely with the press, there’s no way to know for sure what really went on at the meeting, and that’s left plenty of room for pundits to speculate.
Room to Speculate
Former CIA Director James Woolsey, who also met with Flynn and Turkish officials, said that Flynn discussed kidnapping from US soil a Turkish religious figure critical of that country’s president, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal also reported Flynn offered Woolsey a paid position, but that Woolsey declined.
That information has led bloggers, particularly the Palmer Report political blog, to speculate that Nunes may have also been offered a position. But, with Nunes not talking much to the press these days, there’s no way to get an official denial.
Bill Palmer, the man behind the Palmer Report, has also wondered in print about a scenario that is much more alarming. Did Nunes, Palmer asks, see his own name in the intelligence reports he viewed during his late-night visit to the White House grounds? The notion, he says, would explain Nunes’ erratic behavior.
In another revelation that might lead to ugly speculation, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee names he has unmasked include both associates of Trump and members of Congress. Nunes is both.
“When it comes to [inaudible] collection on 2016 campaigns, I’m a little confused, but I think we found at least one occasion where that did happen,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in his questioning of Clapper. “You made a request for unmasking on a Trump associate and maybe a member of Congress? Is that right, Mr. Clapper?”
“Yes,” Clapper answered.
If the name unmasked wasn’t Devin Nunes, it’s very likely to be a political ally. At his March 22 news conference, Nunes told reporters the information he shared with Trump included communications by the president’s transition team members and possibly Trump himself.
Local Support Still There
Despite all the controversy now surrounding Nunes, he still garners high praise from local Republican supporters. Dennis Smith, a former member of the Tulare County Republican Central Committee who ran an unsuccessful bid for a county supervisor seat, thinks Nunes has done a good job during recent events.
“I think Devin has handled himself very well in all the public attention,” Smith, who is also the local Tea Party coordinator, said. “Let’s be honest, that really wasn’t the issue. The issue is just Democrats trying to create discord or chaos. I think it’s a tempest in a teapot, with the other side of the aisle always looking at things to throw at the Republicans.”
In fact, Smith sees Nunes as being better off now than he was.
“I think he’s in a great position for us, his constituents. I’m happy. I’m not totally satisfied. I’ll vote for him. It’ll be a simple decision for me,” he said. “I’m glad he was able to impress now-President Trump with his ability to represent him. Hopefully, we’ll see some benefit for the water situation here in California.”
Understanding the Isolation
Former State Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway of Tulare, who is currently seeking the Republican nomination for state senator in the 16th district, also continues to support Nunes.
“I like Devin, appreciate Devin and trust him,” she said.
And she understands his reluctance to make public appearances.
“Folks say, ‘We just want to talk to you,’ then it just turns into a screaming match,” she said. “They’re all under fire. It’s hostile, so why would you put yourself through it?”
That doesn’t mean she agrees with Nunes’ apparent withdrawal from a constituents who want to ask hard questions. She hasn’t run her own political career that way and promises to continue an open-door policy.
“I want to listen. I want to hear. It doesn’t mean we have to agree,” Conway said. “If you completely shut off the conversation, you’re never going to get anyplace.”
Conway said she may reach out to Nunes.
“I’m going to try,” she said. “Honestly, I’m wrapped up in my own little world here. It’s easy to get frustrated by everything that’s happening.”
Nancy Vigran contributed to this report.