It’s arguable whether Devin Nunes is really representing California’s 22nd Congressional District.
True, he has been reelected seven times since 2002, when he first won in what was then the 21st District. But these days Nunes appears focused on parlaying his role as President Trump’s most ardent lapdog into national media stardom, even when doing so conflicts with the 22nd’s interests. And the district is noticing.
As chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes is often interviewed by right-wing Fox News broadcasters such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. But local political observers including Fresno Bee columnist Marek Warszawski say he hasn’t held a local town hall for years. The district, which encompasses parts of Fresno and Tulare counties, is predominantly agricultural, but Nunes hasn’t taken a position on two of ag’s most pressing issues, trade and immigration, apparently because district sentiment — pro-free trade and pro-immigration — runs counter to Trump’s policies.
And even though Fresno, the biggest city in the district, last month experienced a record 22 consecutive days with highs of more than 100 degrees, Nunes invokes the Trumpian hallucination that climate change isn’t real.
When he arrived in Washington as a freshman congressman in 2003, Nunes was what Warszawski called “a salt-of-the-earth dairy farmer from Pixley who would represent our interests without sinking into the Washington cesspool.” That was before Nunes learned how to swim in it — at about the same time the Trump era began.
Thrust into prominence by the Intelligence Committee’s role in investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia connections, Nunes has delighted the president’s supporters by turning congressional norms upside down: Instead of conducting a genuine probe of the campaign, he has tried to investigate the investigators, endeavoring to use his committee’s powers to show that intelligence officials perpetrated a hoax to discredit the 2016 election.
He now travels the country to raise money and campaign for other Republicans, with at least 15 events scheduled between mid-July and the election, according to the conservative Washington Examiner. His new-found notoriety has swollen his own campaign coffers — as of mid-summer, he had amassed $7.4 million, the most of any California Republican congressman, and three to seven times the amounts he collected in previous campaigns.
Nunes is no investigator, but he plays one on TV. In March 2017, he dramatically announced that intelligence sources had given him documents proving that government agencies had conducted surveillance of the Trump campaign, and he personally debriefed Trump on their contents.
Then the New York Times identified two White House staffers as Nunes’ sources, exposing the episode as a political stunt and Nunes as the stooge who brought about the spectacle of the White House briefing itself. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Nunes was running “an Inspector Clouseau investigation.”
Early this year, Nunes claimed that the FBI’s court application requesting permission to surveil a Trump campaign aide as part of its Russia investigation was based solely on the notorious Steele dossier, and that the application deviously omitted the Clinton campaign’s role in commissioning it. But when the redacted court order was released last month at Nunes’ insistence, it refuted his claims. The request wasn’t based solely on the Steele dossier, and it included a page-long explanation of the dossier’s origins.
Now Nunes contends that confirmation of his claims of bias in the FBI investigation is hidden in the unredacted portions of the application. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, doesn’t buy it: He said “sound reasons” existed for the FBI’s surveillance.
Nunes follows the Trump playbook: Lie. If caught, double down. Throw accusations back at the source. Proclaim “fake news.” He has run television and radio ads denouncing the Fresno Bee and calling it “a left-wing rag,” an especially shameless charge considering that the Bee endorsed Nunes in every congressional election since 2002. But the Bee and other outlets also have reported that since 2013, Nunes has used political donations to pay for lavish Las Vegas trips, limousine travel, winery tours and $15,000 worth of tickets to NBA games featuring his favorite team, the far-from-the-22nd-District Boston Celtics.
Nunes protests that he didn’t break any rules. Still, all this could make him vulnerable in November. Three polling outlets rate the 22nd District as “safe Republican,” and a June 28 Public Policy Polling survey put Nunes ahead of his Democratic challenger, a 34-year-old prosecutor named Andrew Janz, by eight points, 49% to 41%. That sounds like a big lead, but in 2016, Nunes beat his opponent 68% to 32%.
Even among some reliably Republican voters — farmers — there may be signs of ambivalence. Last month, two agricultural industry leaders, the presidents of Western Growers and the California Farm Bureau Federation, published an op-ed in the Bee that praised three San Joaquin Valley Republican congressmen for addressing the valley’s farm labor shortage by fighting for pro-immigration legislation. They pointedly omitted Nunes.
But Nunes’ mind isn’t on farm labor right now. A notable New Yorker cover following Trump’s ludicrous summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin showed the president flat on his face at the bottom of the Trump Tower escalator, still vaingloriously signaling thumbs up. Enlarge the frame, and Nunes would be at his side, signaling a thumbs-up right back.