A mysterious trip to the White House, an abruptly canceled hearing on Russia, and a growing chorus of calls for his recusal. What exactly is going on with Rep. Devin Nunes, the man accused of using his security clearance to spin the Trump Russia investigation?
Nunes – a Republican from California who chairs the House Intelligence Committee – catapulted himself into the national spotlight last Wednesday after holding an impromptu press conference to assert that there had been an “incidental collection” of information about Trump and his associates during the election.
His announcement came just a day after the heads of the FBI and NSA testified under oath that there was no evidence to support Trump’s claims that he had been wire “tapped” during the campaign. Trump later seized on Nunes’ contradictory assertions to bolster his debunked claims, saying he felt “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’ briefing.
Where Nunes got the information remains unclear, and members of his own committee say they still have not been briefed on the evidence or the source. Subsequent news reports indicate Nunes received a mysterious call the night before his press conference, prompting him to jump out a car he was traveling in with a staffer. Nunes has since admitted he was summoned to the White House for a briefing but denies the Trump administration was even aware he was there.
Nunes “met with his source at the White House grounds in order to have proximity to a secure location where he could view the information provided by the source,” a spokesperson said.
Democrats say Nunes’ explanation makes no sense because the White House keeps tabs on its visitors and because there were plenty of secure locations outside the White House where a government source could have shown him classified evidence.
“This is done because the White House wanted it to be done,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who also sits on the House Intel Committee said Tuesday on Morning Joe. “And this is what a cover-up to a crime looks like. We are watching it play out right now.”
The bizarre chain of events prompted Republican Sen. John McCain to speak out against his colleague.
“I think there needs to be a lot of explaining to do,” McCain said in an appearance on CBS’s This Morning Tuesday. “I’ve been around for quite a while and I’ve never heard of such thing.”
And the chorus against Nunes grew even louder Tuesday, as news broke he had canceled a House Intelligence hearing on Russia the same day Sally Yates – Trump’s former acting Attorney General – was due to testify about Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn. Former CIA director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were also reportedly set to testify.
Yates, an Obama deputy who briefly served as Trump’s acting Attorney General until he fired her for refusing to defend his Muslim ban in January, was expected to discuss her investigation into Flynn, a key figure in the Russia investigation who was forced to resign after it was revealed he had lied to the Vice President about his communications with the Russian ambassador.
Both Yates and Brennan had reportedly informed the Trump administration that their testimony would contradict some statements made by White House officials. According to documents, the Department of Justice first tried to block her testimony by classifying her communications with the White House as privileged and confidential.
“The president owns those privileges,” Associate Deputy Attorney General Scott Schools wrote in a letter last week. “Therefore, to the extent Ms. Yates needs consent to disclose the details of those communications to [the intelligence panel], she needs to consult with the White House.”
Yates indicated Friday that she intended to testify anyway – “I am advising the White House of Ms. Yates’ intention to provide information,’’ her lawyer wrote. Nunes canceled the hearing the same day.
“We are aware that former AG Yates intended to speak on these matters, and sought permission to testify from the White House,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Tuesday. “Whether the White House’s desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege to keep her from providing the full truth on what happened contributed to the decision to cancel today’s hearing, we do not know.”
And Schiff has bipartisan support. “I just think [Nunes] needs to explain what he did, who he talked to,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday. “Schiff to me is talking more like a prosecutor and Nunes has been acting like a defense attorney. The bottom line is, we’re hoping they can put it together in the House. We hope they can get back on track.”
Nunes, asked if the White House had requested he cancel the hearing, declined to confirm or deny the allegations. “Look, you guys are just speculating. I’m sorry, whenever there’s time we’ll do a press conference,’’ he told a Washington Post reporter.
Rebuffing calls to recuse himself from the investigation Tuesday, Nunes asked the assembled reporters, “Why would I?”