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Devin Nunes' role turns from controversial to untenable

Devin Nunes' role turns from controversial to untenable
The Tulare congressman leaves the U.S. Capitol after recusing himself as chairman of the House Russia investigation. (JIM LO SCALZO / EPA)

Devin Nunes' departure from his role as leader of the House investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election put a blot on the Tulare congressman's record that the preceding drip-drip-drip of controversy had not.

For weeks, Nunes has been beset by criticism, especially after his startling trip to the White House to receive what he described as classified evidence indicating possible surveillance of some members of Donald Trump's transition team. And for weeks, Nunes steadfastly denied he'd done anything wrong and pledged to remain at the helm of the House Intelligence Committee's investigation.

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But Thursday, a new investigation — this time by the House Ethics Committee into whether Nunes had inappropriately released classified information — marked a more serious turn for the Republican congressman.

Much is unknown about what happens next, but what has happened so far cut into the congressman's desire to be seen as a public servant with unsullied integrity, caught in the whirlwind of partisan warfare.

It is far too soon to know whether his hold on his district has loosened, although Nunes' opponents in the Central Valley district were heartened. But for now, the events were a reminder that power can vanish in Washington as swiftly as it accumulates, and that, at minimum, every act in this hyper-partisan environment spurs a furious reaction.

If the current circumstances turn out to endanger to Nunes' electability, it will be yet another sign that the Trump method of operating can pose a threat to the president's allies.

"It's part of a larger phenomenon — so many people enter Trump's orbit and they leave damaged," Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said before Nunes' recusal was announced. "Very few people have come out of Trumpland in better shape than they went in, and that's definitely the case with Nunes."

Taken in their most benign light, Nunes' actions over the last few weeks were part of a Republican effort to provide cover for President Trump after his unsubstantiated assertion that he'd been wiretapped by President Obama.

Nunes actively defended Trump, brushing aside Democratic demands that he maintain independence from the administration.

He also said in recent days that he had alerted House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to the sequence of events, meaning that the Republican leader potentially could be drawn into any look at Nunes' actions.

That may have turned a controversial chairmanship into something untenable.

In his statement, Nunes called for a swift investigation into the ethics charges. He said he was "temporarily" turning over the investigation to other Republicans.

But other statements suggested the move was more permanent. Ryan said that while Nunes retained his trust, his chairmanship was now a "distraction" from the Intelligence Committee's work.

Neither he nor Trump suggested a quick return to the committee was in the offing.

The political impact of the ethics investigation depends on its length and outcome. An investigation swiftly resolved in Nunes' favor would leave fewer marks, if history is any guide.

A lengthy investigation — or one that tarred Nunes with wrongdoing — would be more problematic for the congressman. But for now, his opponents continue to have a difficult task ahead. That is because his district has remained highly loyal to the congressman; in seven of his eight elections he's earned about 70% of the vote. In 2016, he came in just under that mark, doubling the standing of his Democratic opponent.

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Carol Kim, one of a host of Central Valley residents seeking to unseat Nunes, said some of the credit for his departure rested with protesters who have opposed him at his home, his offices and at recent events.

Thursday's news only added to their enthusiasm, she said.

"The activity on Twitter and Facebook when I woke up this morning from various resistance groups was that finally something is happening here," she said. "A lot of people feel we had an impact in that decision."

But the opponents have not consolidated around a candidate, a process that Fresno County Democratic Party Chairman Michael D. Evans said recently was two to three months away.

With almost two years to go before his next general election, Nunes remains popular, according to local officials. In recent interviews, Tulare residents saw the fracas over his committee decisions as motivated by partisanship and hatred of Trump.

The question is whether they will view the ethics investigation through the same lens, particularly if Nunes comes out on the losing end. At the least, the congressman's image will have been dented.

Asked last week whether the controversy had harmed him, Nunes spoke optimistically about the ties he had to the area in which he'd grown up.

"I have a long history of speaking very factually, of doing my homework and never have I been accused of being — you know, any type of unfair person," he said.

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