Dispatch, Explainers January 25, 2018

The Nunes File


As Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) is abusing the power of his office. He has run a year-long campaign to hide the truth about Russian interference in the 2016 election and attack the credibility of U.S. law enforcement by spreading lies and misleading information.

At every turn, Nunes—a member of the Trump transition team—has conspired with the Trump White House to undermine the FBI investigation and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He has made his wildest allegations at moments when it could most distract from damaging revelations about the President and his team. In every instance, Nunes’ charges have proven to be baseless fabrications that crumble under the slightest scrutiny. His efforts are nothing more than deceptive political stunts, often carefully orchestrated with or at the direction of the White House.

The recent “memo” Nunes has prepared and hyped up is another such stunt, a distortion of classified material provided by the FBI twisted to advance a political point. Moreover, its use in this manner violates the terms of an agreement Speaker Ryan and Chairman Nunes had with the Justice Department about how this highly sensitive information would be handled. Nunes has refused to share the memo with anyone outside the House Intelligence Committee who has access to the classified information upon which these claims are based. That includes the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as with Trump’s own appointees in the FBI and Justice Department. In doing so, Nunes has hidden the “memo” from anyone who could provide an independent assessment of its veracity. However, right-wing media figures have been fed the memo’s wild claims, and they have been relentlessly hyping its contents for more than a week.

This political stunt has real costs. By deploying his deceptive spin, Nunes may have jeopardized the original—and sensitive—classified information. A recent letter from the Justice Department, authored by a Trump political appointee, called Nunes’ effort to publicly release classified and sensitive law enforcement information “excessively reckless.” Nunes has been aided and amplified by Russian intelligence operatives online, as well as by Wikileaks, which Trump’s own CIA Director has described as a “hostile intelligence service helped by Russia.” It is this very Russian influence operation that the House Intelligence Committee is supposed to be investigating.

The Chairman of the Intelligence Committee has been derelict in his duty. His position is one of the most powerful in the entire legislature, placing Nunes among the eight members of Congress with access to America’s most closely held secrets. As Chairman, Nunes also oversees a professional intelligence committee staff, who he commandeered as pawns in his attack on U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. Not only has he inappropriately engaged them in a partisan effort, he may very well be hindering their efforts to determine the full extent of Russia’s interference in our election.

An examination of Devin Nunes’ actions over the past year shows a clear pattern of abuse of power, which has undermined U.S. national security and left the United States dangerously vulnerable to ongoing attacks on our democracy.

Nunes is a White House Surrogate

Nunes was an official member of the Trump Transition Team. During that time, he publicly expressed doubt about the conclusion of the Intelligence Community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, saying in December 2016, “I’ll be the first one to come out and point at Russia if there’s clear evidence, but there is no clear evidence—even now.” In January 2017, Nunes publicly said that Congress should not investigate any possible contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, claiming, “House committees don’t go operational like that, that I know of.” In January, Nunes did call for one investigation, however, into leaks of material related to Trump to the media, including the Steele dossier.

In February, Nunes, acting at the explicit request of the White House, spoke to reporters in an effort to refute stories in the media alleging that the FBI was investigating contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russians: “They’ve looked,” he said, “and it’s all a dead trail that leads me to believe no contact, not even pizza-delivery-guy contract.” We now know that the FBI was in fact investigating this and that, far from being infrequent and inconsequential, Russians interacted with Trump campaign officials, including his campaign chairman and other high-ranking officials, at least 31 times. Of course, as Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, this is information that Nunes already knew then.

Later in February, Nunes called the investigation “almost like McCarthyism revisited” and a “witch hunt.” He went on to say, “[o]nce we begin to look at all the evidence, and if we find any American that had any contact with Russian agents or anybody affiliated with the Russia government, then we’ll be glad to, at that point, you know, subpoena those people before the House and let the legislative branch do its oversight and then we would recommend it over to, you know, the appropriate people.” As evidence has come to light of just those kinds of contacts, Nunes has done nothing of the kind.

Nunes’ bogus “unmasking” accusations

The details of Nunes’ most notorious claim should consign him to the sidelines in any meaningful national political debate. Nunes’ story was that he received information from “a whistleblower” revealing that senior officials in the Obama administration had unlawfully unmasked the identities of Trump campaign officials caught on foreign intelligence intercepts. Nunes claimed this information was so serious that he first briefed House Speaker Paul Ryan and then went to the White House to reveal the information to the Trump team. Trump used the Nunes revelations to claim that he was vindicated for his infamous accusation that Obama had wiretapped him during the campaign.

In reality, this was a scheme developed by the White House and Nunes to distract from FBI Director James Comey’s announcement two days earlier that the FBI was investigating possible Trump-Russia collusion. Nunes’ “whistleblower” actually turned out to be senior Trump White House officials Ezra Cohen-Watnick, John Eisenberg, and Michael Ellis. Nunes secretly went to the White House to obtain this “information” the day before, and then staged a return the next day to pretend to tell the Trump administration what it already knew. And even that information itself was completely untrue; Trump’s own National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, found that the accusations against Obama officials had no merit. The blowback from this fiasco, including concerns that Nunes had improperly handled classified information as part of his political stunt, forced Nunes to nominally recuse himself from the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation, although he apparently did not even abide by the terms of his recusal.

Nunes’ tries to resurrect debunked Uranium One allegations

In late October 2017, Nunes tried to resurrect allegations pertaining to the sale of Uranium One, another bogus scandal that was used to try to smear former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Nunes and other House Republicans made wild accusations about Clinton approving the sale of U.S. uranium stocks to Russia in exchange for more than $100 million in contributions to the Clinton Foundation. Nunes announced that the House Intelligence Committee was partnering with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate.

But this too was another completely bogus partisan effort that was quickly and easily debunked. First, the sale was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, or CFIUS, a panel comprising nine Cabinet Secretaries and chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury. The Secretary of State is only one of the nine, and cannot make a final determination on his or her own. It is correct that a Russian company did own the company that operates a U.S. uranium mine, but it does not have an export license for the uranium, meaning it all remains in the United States. The extent of the uranium production was also wildly overstated, as the mine in question produced just 2.3% of uranium in the United States in 2016. Even the $100 million contribution figure to the Clinton Foundation is grossly inaccurate, with the overwhelming majority of that coming from a donor to the Foundation who had sold any financial interest in the company at issue two years prior to the sale.

Given the nonsensical nature of the claims, it was clear Republicans did not intend to find any actual evidence. Rather, Nunes—joined by other Republicans in Congress—was responding to Trump’s repeated demands for renewed investigations of Hillary Clinton and trying to distract from the first indictments in the Mueller investigation. Trump’s outside confidant Roger Stone said the motivation behind this push was to get a new Special Counsel who “would immediately have to inform Mueller, Comey, and [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein that they are under federal investigation. Trump can’t afford to fire Mueller politically. But this pushes him aside.” (Mueller was the head of the FBI at the time of the sale.)

Nunes subpoenaed Fusion GPS

Nunes has used his subpoena power, but not to probe deeper into possible ties between Trump campaign officials and Russians. Rather, he signed subpoenas for the firm that investigated those contacts and was responsible for producing the Steele dossier. In October 2017, Nunes reportedly signed subpoenas for testimony and documents from Fusion GPS despite the fact that he was nominally recused from the investigation at that point and that there was “good faith engagement thus far by the witnesses on the potential terms for voluntary cooperation.”

The Nunes “Memo”

The four pages of talking points that Nunes has prepared must be viewed through the lens of his long campaign of dishonesty to defend Trump and undermine the Mueller investigation. In this case, it appears Nunes used the professional staff of the House Intelligence committee to develop an opposition memo to undermine the FBI. The furor comes as news broke that Mueller interviewed the Attorney General and is actively seeking an interview with Trump himself.

Nunes appears to have subpoenaed sensitive classified and law enforcement information with the express intent of mining this information to attack the Department of Justice and the FBI. In January, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray met with Speaker Ryan to ask him to get Nunes to relent. Ryan declined and, according to a letter released on January 24th from the Department of Justice to Nunes, the department agreed to turn this information over to Speaker Paul Ryan and his committee if it was protected. Instead, Nunes distorted the information to draft a “memo” that was made available to the entire House of Representatives, violating the agreement with the Justice Department.

Similar to Nunes’ earlier White House unmasking incident, he is again staging a laughably bizarre event to generate press attention—in this case, demanding that House Republicans release a document that he and fellow House Republicans themselves drafted and have already shared with House Republicans.

Conservatives have launched a media campaign to hype the memo, including breathless allusions to unlawful actions by the FBI in investigating Trump. The crazed conspiracy theories have reached a fever pitch, with members of Congress alleging without any evidence that there is a “secret society” in the FBI that is out to bring down the president. Congressional Republicans have briefed their allies in conservative media who have dutifully gone on the attack, demanding the investigation and jailing of top FBI officials, and even saying “it may be time to declare war on the deep state and clear out the rot at the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department.”

The actions and motives of Devin Nunes and House Republicans pushing this memo could not be more clear: they are pursuing a scorched earth strategy to protect Trump from being held responsible for his actions and they will bring down the entire FBI and Department of Justice if that is what it takes.

NUNES TIMELINE: A YEAR OF ABUSE OF POWER TO OBSTRUCT US LAW ENFORCEMENT

TRANSITION TEAM

Nov 2016-January 2017 – Nunes serves as a member of the Trump Transition Team.

December 2016 – Nunes questions the CIA’s assessment that Russia interfered. After the CIA reaches its initial assessment in December 2016 that Russia had interfered in the election, Nunes casts doubt on the veracity of the CIA’s conclusion, commenting, “I’ll be the first one to come out and point at Russia if there’s clear evidence, but there is no clear evidence—even now.”

January 6, 2017 – The Intelligence Community releases its report concluding unanimously that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 election. 

January 13, 2017 – Nunes resists opening an investigation. He tells Politico in January that he does not believe Congress should be investigating contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, saying, “House committees don’t go operational like that, that I know of.”

January 13, 2017 – Nunes calls for an intelligence probe of “leaks” from the intelligence community about Trump’s ties to Russia.

January 18 – Nunes attends a breakfast roundtable with Michael Flynn and the Turkish Foreign Minister. Flynn at that time is an unregistered Foreign Agent of Turkey.

NUNES LEADS INVESTIGATION – FOCUSES ON “LEAKS”

January 25, 2017 – House Intelligence Committee announces its investigation. Despite Nunes’ link to the Trump administration, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan allows Nunes, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to lead the House’s effort to investigate Russian interference.

February 24, 2017 – Nunes operates as a White House surrogate and speaks to reporters at the direction of the White House to counter stories on Trump’s Russia ties. In mid-February, Nunes becomes one of several members of Congress enlisted by the White House to help publicly counter news stories about alleged contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials. Unlike the others contacted by the White House, Nunes goes on the record with The Wall Street Journal. Nunes’ spokesman says that, “at the request of a White House communications aide, Chairman Nunes then spoke to an additional reporter.”

February 25 – Nunes compares the Trump-Russia investigation to McCarthyism and a witch hunt.  Nunes calls the Trump-Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and likened it to “McCarthyism revisited.”

TRUMP SURVEILLENCE CLAIM

March 4 – Trump claims Obama had his “wires tapped.”

  • Trump tweets alleging surveillance by the Obama administration. Trump first claims that the Obama administration surveilled his campaign on March 4, 2017. That morning, Trump tweets that President Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
  • White House later admits no evidence for charge. The White House ultimately acknowledges that it has no evidence that Obama had ordered Trump’s wires tapped, but claims that, because Trump had initially made the allegation in quotes, he was referring not to actual wiretapping but to general surveillance.

March 15 – Trump defends his wiretapping claim, and says more information will come “over the next two weeks.”  Trump tells Tucker Carlson, “When I say wiretapping … that really covers surveillance and many other things … I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”

March 19 – Nunes goes on Fox News Sunday, raises concerns about “unmasking,” and seems to indicate a White House individual is under surveillance. When asked by Chris Wallace if he thinks “there was any surveillance of people in Trump world,” Nunes responds, “Well, if you look at the folks that are working in the White House today that are involved in the—in the Trump—in the Trump administration, I don’t think there’s any but one there that’s under any type of—of—of investigation or surveillance activities at all.” Boris Epsteyn abruptly announces he will be leaving the White House on March 25.

COMEY TESTIFIES AT NUNES HEARING

March 20 – Nunes chairs the first public hearing on Russia where FBI Director Comey announces there is an FBI investigation into collusion. Republican members of the committee focus almost exclusively on “leaks.”

UNMASKING

March 21 — Nunes receives a phone call, abruptly gets out of his Uber, and goes to the White House.

  • That night, Nunes reportedly receives a communication on his phone and promptly gets out of the Uber he is riding in with a staffer.
  • It is later revealed that Nunes went to the White House to review intelligence reports alleging that Trump and his associates had been “incidentally swept up” in legal foreign surveillance by American spy agencies.
  • Nunes’ sources have since been revealed to include two White House lawyers, John Eisenberg and Michael Ellis, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, at the time a staffer on the National Security Council.

March 22, morning – Nunes meets with Paul Ryan.

  • Nunes informs Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of the intelligence reports alleging that Trump and his associates had been intercepted in foreign surveillance.

March 22, afternoon – Nunes holds press conference on the Hill at 3 p.m. and says he was contacted by a “whistle-blower.” He says he is going to the White House to “brief” them on the information he received from them the night before.

  • Nunes alleges that he has seen information indicating that Obama administration national security officials, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and CIA Director John Brennan, had “unmasked,” or received the identities of, Trump associates whose communications had been intercepted.

March 22, afternoon – Nunes goes to White House. He then holds another press conference.

March 23, 7:00am – Nunes holds another press conference where he claims White House didn’t know about the information he had been given by the White House.

  • Nunes says, “The president didn’t invite me over, I called down there and invited myself because I thought he needed to understand what I say and he needed to get that information.” This statement is later proven false, as Nunes had in fact received the intelligence from the White House in the first place.

March 28 – Nunes cancels additional hearings. Nunes cancels a hearing during which former acting Attorney General Sally Yates had planned to testify, leading top congressional Democrats to claim that the investigation had stalled. Under Nunes’ leadership, regular meetings are canceled as well.

April 6 – Nunes, under ethics investigation, is forced to recuse himself. Facing an ethics investigation into his handling of sensitive material, Nunes announces on April 6 that he will be recusing himself from his committee’s investigation into Russia.

NUNES RECUSED, YET STILL INVOLVED

Even during the period of his recusal, Nunes continued to run interference for the White House. He did so by attempting to refocus the controversy around Rice’s decision to unmask Trump associates’ identities in intercepts.

June 26– Nunes tells CNN will still be engaged, despite recusal. Nunes says: “When I temporarily stepped aside from leading the investigation, that’s exactly what it means: It doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to be involved, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to be fully read in.”

July 27 – Nunes continues to make “unmasking” allegations against Obama officials. According to CNN, “Nunes [leads] an effort to subpoena the FBI, CIA and NSA about Trump associates whose identities were allegedly unmasked during the presidential transition by Obama administration officials.” Nunes writes a letter to the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in which he claims that “current and former government officials had easy access to U.S. person information and that it is possible that they used this information to achieve partisan political purposes, including the selective, anonymous leaking of such information.”

August 3 – NSA McMaster dismisses claims of wrong-doing. Bloomberg reports that Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has concluded that Rice had violated neither the law nor intelligence community protocol.

Summer – Nunes sends House Intelligence Committee professional staffers on a secret trip to London to “track down” Steele. According to Politico, the staffers showed up unannounced at Steele’s lawyer’s office. The trip “inflamed simmering tensions between House and Senate investigators.” Nunes also does not tell his Democratic colleagues or special counsel Robert Mueller’s office about this trip.

Summer/Fall – Nunes meets with a future witness in the investigation. Nunes meets with Erik Prince, who is later called to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during its Russia probe. This meeting includes a discussion of “Nunes’ investigation into the unmasking of Americans’ identities in U.S. intelligence reports.” Prince was reportedly involved in efforts to set up secret backchannel communications between the Kremlin and President-elect Trump.

Late August – Nunes subpoenas the FBI and Department of Justice to provide records on its relationship with Steele and the Trump Dossier. According to CNN, “Nunes signed off on subpoenas to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray to provide the panel with records about the Justice Department’s relationship with Steele and the Trump dossier, warning in a letter that he would haul them to Capitol Hill to answer questions at a public hearing if they did not comply.”

October – Nunes, despite his recusal, subpoenas Fusion GPS. These subpoenas are reportedly issued “without the minority’s agreement.” Nunes’ involvement in these subpoenas indicates that he is still involved in an investigation from which he has recused himself, thus potentially undermining the investigation itself.

October-December – Nunes subpoenas Fusion GPS’ bank (thus far the only bank subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee). Natasha Bertrand reports that “The House Intelligence Committee has only issued one subpoena to a financial institution in the 11 months since it opened its investigation.” Nunes has ignored calls to subpoena Deutsche Bank, one of the few financial institutions to lend to Trump in recent decades.

October 26 – Nunes leads the effort to create a new bogus scandal involving Uranium One. In another effort to distract from the investigation, Nunes holds a press conference calling for an investigation into former Secretary of State Clinton’s role, as one of nine cabinet members, in the approval of a sale of uranium mine.

  • Even though these claims have been repeatedly debunked, Nunes still announces a new probe into how the Obama administration handled the deal.
  • Roger Stone explained the true motive for this, telling Vanity Fair that a prosecutor looking into Uranium One would also have to investigate the FBI’s role in approving the deal, making Mueller a target because he was FBI director at the time.

October 27 – News leaks of potential indictments in Mueller investigation. CNN reports that the first charges have been approved in the Mueller investigation. The charges are sealed, and it is reported that those who have been indicted will be taken into custody the following Monday.

October 30 – Paul Manafort and Rick Gates are indicted; George Papadopoulos’s guilty plea is unsealed. The Mueller investigation indicts Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates on twelve charges, including conspiracy against the United States, money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent, making false and misleading FARA statements, and failing to report foreign bank accounts; they plead not guilty. Documents are unsealed revealing that George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty on October 03, 2017, to “lying to federal officials about his contacts with Russian nationals.” Papadopoulos has signed a plea agreement indicating his cooperation with Mueller.

#RELEASE THE MEMO

December 7 – Nunes is cleared of ethics violation. The House Ethics Committee clears Nunes of allegations that he improperly handled classified information, allowing him to resume his leadership of the Russia investigation.

December 8 – Nunes says DOJ/FBI investigators are “dirty” and asks “who’s watching the watchman?” In an interview with Fox, he says, “I hate to use the word corrupt, but they’ve become at least so dirty that who’s watching the watchmen? Who’s investigating these people? There is no one.”

December – Nunes leads group of House Republicans seeking “to build a case” that there is “corruption and conspiracy” in the FBI and Justice Department. Politico reports on December 20 that “a subset of the Republican members of the House intelligence committee, led by Chairman Devin Nunes” has “gathered secretly for weeks in the Capitol in an effort to build a case that senior leaders of the Justice Department and FBI improperly—and perhaps criminally—mishandled the contents of a dossier that describes alleged ties between President Donald Trump and Russia … the goal is to highlight what some committee Republicans see as corruption and conspiracy in the upper ranks of federal law enforcement. The group hopes to release a report early next year … That final product could ultimately be used by Republicans to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.”

December 28 – Nunes writes a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein demanding the DOJ and FBI turn over information by January 3 or face “contempt citations.”

January 3, 2018 – Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and FBI Director Wray meet with Speaker Paul Ryan asking him to turn off Nunes’ subpoenas; Ryan refuses and backs Nunes; DOJ/FBI provides information. According to Fox, “among the information being sought by the committee are reports that summarize meetings between FBI confidential human sources and FBI officials about the Steele dossier.”

January – Republican Staff on HPSCI write a “memo” based on the information Speaker Ryan forced the FBI/DOJ to turn over. Politico reports that, “compiled by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes and fellow Republicans on the panel … the memo, according to three people who have viewed it, raises questions about how the FBI handled a fall 2016 application for a warrant to surveil a Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, and whether agents were forthcoming about the role a controversial dossier alleging Kremlin influence over Trump played in their decision to seek the warrant.”

January – Republicans on House Intelligence Committee divided on whether to release the memo. The main debate in the House has so far centered not around the memo’s secret allegations, but whether the classified document can be publicly released without compromising FBI sources and methods. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), who is leading the Russia probe, has said releasing it would be “dangerous.” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) opposes releasing the memo, saying, “you don’t want the enemy to know that.” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) has said the memo would need to be “scrubbed” and made unclassified for him support its release. Other GOP members continued to push for the memo’s release, with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) stating, “I think that this will not end just with firings. I believe there are people who will go to jail” and Rep. Steve King saying “I no longer hold out hope there is an innocent explanation for the information the public has seen. I have long said it is worse than Watergate.”

January – Nunes makes the memo available to all House Republicans, violating his agreement with the DOJ to protect the information.