In a tweet storm this morning, President Trump accused the Intelligence Community (IC) of leaking like a sieve and misread yet another opinion piece to support his line of reasoning. Before the headlines are completely taken over by in-depth explanations of how crazy this is, I think it’s worth pointing out that Trump is not alone in inappropriately pointing the finger at the IC in an attempt to take the heat off the White House and the spotlight off its bombshell 36 hours.
I am referring, of course, to Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. As Aaron Blake of the Washington Post pointed out yesterday afternoon, Kellyanne Conway wasn't the only Republican with egg on her face after her badly timed defense of Flynn, just before Flynn's resignation as national security adviser. In a series of statements yesterday, Nunes didn't just express confidence in Flynn; he lashed out at those who persisted in seeing differently.
In a Fox interview, Nunes accused the press of "maliciously" attacking Flynn and blamed the unraveling disaster on "an unprecedented number of leaks.” Worse, after Flynn's resignation, Nunes immediately sought to swivel the spotlight from Flynn's alleged misconduct to the shenanigans by which the FBI allegedly uncovered it: “I expect for the FBI to tell me what is going on, and they better have a good answer,” said Nunes, according to the Post. “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded.”
Well, no. That’s not the big problem. But Nunes is right that there are a troubling things happening here involving forces well beyond Flynn.
Even if unintentionally, Nunes’s attempt to transform a major national security scandal into a surveillance scandal misleads the public on the activities of the IC. Irrespective of how information about the calls between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was leaked, there is no way that Nunes is unaware that calls involving key Russian diplomats like Kislyak are monitored as a matter of routine. (And if Nunes is unaware of this, he has no business on, much less chairing, House Intelligence). So far, sources say that Flynn was not the target of the taps, and the fact that Flynn’s identity was ascertained signifies no legal mischief whatsoever under FISA, as David Kris explains. As far as Nunes or the public yet knows, Nunes pointed the finger at the IC here for nothing more than doing its job, in what appears to have been a short-sighted effort to shift blame.
Timothy Edgar—and now Trump—has pointed out that the leaks themselves are criminal, but this is fundamentally different from claiming that Flynn was improperly surveilled. Among other things, the leaks themselves do not demonstrate misconduct on the part of the IC. They could have come from White House officials, current or former. Illegal wiretapping and leaks are very different animals.
If you find Nunes’s allegation less than disturbing, note that Nunes may as well have ripped a page out of the Breitbart playbook: On Tuesday, the alt-right site published a full story accusing “the nation’s intelligence services” of “political espionage against the newly-elected government.”
Perhaps Nunes is getting his news from Breitbart, or Breitbart is, without attribution, building whole stories on top of the irresponsible statements of Nunes and others. Either way, it doesn’t look good for Nunes, whose most important job is doing his part to keep our country safe from foreign threats—a duty at odds with baselessly impugning the IC for endeavoring to do that.
Nunes’s behavior is also a reminder that there are people other than Flynn who have demonstrated poor judgment over the course of this unfolding debacle. I don’t just mean at the hot center of events—like the unnamed Trump advisers in that Times story who allegedly communicated with Russia in the year leading up to the election. I mean that at the periphery, too, plenty of people have conducted themselves without the facts or due restraint. Nunes is chief among them.
Recall that, as a member of Trump's transition team back in November, Nunes was one of the loudest supporters of Flynn's then-likely selection for the national security adviser post. “This is a guy who has the president’s trust, has credentials with the military, credentials with the intelligence community and credibility with Congress,” said Nunes. “He’s a very serious person. He takes his job very seriously,” Nunes further stated, notwithstanding then-swirling questions about (among other things) Flynn's paid appearance at a Kremlin propaganda gala. In light of Nunes’s no-holds-barred endorsement of Flynn, it is understandable that the emerging revelations of Flynn’s misleading representations about his conversations with the Russians would make Nunes uncomfortable. But this is all the more reason to remain quiet and wait for the facts to emerge. Instead, Nunes went to bat for Flynn and the White House.
This was not just partisan behavior. It is a failure to act with adequate consideration for Nunes’s responsibilities to and influence on intelligence matters as one of the Gang of Eight and as chairman of the committee of jurisdiction.
Nunes’s aggressively pro-administration posture has included over recent weeks hitting out at the IC and downplaying the Russian threat. He suggested back in early January, for example, that partisan politics accounted for the IC’s conclusion that "Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-Elect Trump's election.” When, during an interview, Chris Wallace quoted one of Trump's tweets and pointed out the then-President-elect didn't exactly sound "ready to crack down on the Kremlin," Nunes defended Trump’s comments, arguing that "he wouldn't be the first president to want to be buddies with Putin."
All this marks a 180-degree turn for Nunes who, as recently as last spring, declared on CNN that "[t]he biggest intelligence failure that we have had since 9/11 has been the inability to predict the leadership plans and intentions of the Putin regime in Russia.” Under the Obama administration, Nunes called out the IC, the White House, Congress and U.S. allies for being suckered into negotiating with Russia and "misjudg[ing] Putin for many, many years.”
The most encouraging development from Congress to date was the announcement yesterday from the heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), that the committee's continuing probe must include "any contacts by any campaign individuals that might have happened with Russian government officials." The announcement came on the heels of Flynn’s resignation and hours before the New York Times broke the news that members of Trump's campaign and other Trump associates repeatedly communicated with senior Russian intelligence officials last year.
The fact that Burr and Warner’s bipartisan commitment is such cause for relief is itself telling. Such a commitment should be expected, considering that we are talking about information from multiple sources that people advising the sitting president had communicated for up to a year with the very foreign power that interfered with our election—and improper contacts with which got the National Security Adviser fired within four weeks of taking office. Yet we’ve seen no similar show of bipartisan concern in the House.
Even now, in fact, key Republicans specifically entrusted with oversight matters are attempting to turn the page on harms that by no means necessarily end with Flynn’s resignation. For example, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)—who, like Nunes, was an aggressive proponent of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and has been startlingly silent on ethical issues under Trump—declared yesterday that he has no intention of further probing Flynn ties to Russia. “It’s taken care of itself at this point,” he said, just before the Times broke its story. Note how much less careful this comment was than that offered by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who stated, in response to questions about whether further congressional investigation is necessary, “I’m not going to prejudge the circumstances surrounding this, I think the administration will explain the circumstances that led to this.”
At some point, the House of Representatives and its House Intelligence Committee chairman are going to need to face the oversight music, however reluctant they are to do their part to orchestrate it.