Embattled House Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told hundreds of local Republicans at a recent private dinner fundraiser that congressional investigations into Russia's interference in the 2016 election are about Democrats trying to justify Hillary Clinton's loss.
"The Democrats don't want an investigation on Russia. They want an independent commission. Why do they want an independent commission? Because they want to continue the narrative that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are best friends, and that's the reason that he won, because Hillary Clinton would have never lost on her own; it had to be someone else's fault," Nunes told Republicans at the $75-per-plate Tulare County Lincoln Dinner on April 7. His remarks were recorded on video and provided to The Times.
"They have tried to destroy this Russia investigation, they've never been serious about it, and one of the great things now that I've stepped aside from this Russia investigation, I can actually say what I want to say. I know that there's probably media in here, you can write it but just try to get it right when you do," he said.
In the video, Nunes (R-Tulare) can be seen explaining why he felt he had to make the unexpected trip to the White House that sparked an ethics investigation into whether he mishandled classified information. He says he stepped away from leading the House's Russia investigation to help vulnerable Republicans like his district neighbor Rep. David Valadao.
Nunes made the comments while introducing conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza at the fundraising dinner, held just one day after he stepped away from leading the House Select Intelligence Committee's probe.
Nunes has made few public comments since stepping down from the matter.
When asked if the congressman wanted to comment on or clarify his remarks, a spokesman responded with a statement from Nunes.
"For the LA Times to tout comments I made in front of 700 people, which attendees broadcasted on Facebook Live and which reflected themes I've discussed repeatedly this year, as some sort of unique revelation is the epitome of lazy reporting and fake news," he said.
A Tulare County resident who describes himself as opposing Nunes provided The Times with two cellphone videos shot at the event. Both show Nunes' remarks and one also includes D'Souza's speech following the congressman's introduction.
Nunes told attendees that months before Trump tweeted that the Obama administration had wiretapped Trump Tower, he knew about incidents of the previous administration "unmasking" or revealing the names of Americans incidentally caught up in surveillance. As he spoke at a lectern draped in flag bunting, the crowd cheered and interrupted Nunes repeatedly with laughter and applause.
"I went and looked at what I knew existed on the unmaskings, but what I found was a treasure trove of stuff that's really bad in terms of surveillance on Americans and that is critical to the job that I have as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee," Nunes said. "It's really horrible because it endangers America, because the work that our intelligence professionals do is so critical to our safety, to have an administration, a past administration, abuse these powers and put our country in jeopardy, there's nothing, there's no words that can explain the damage they've done and the damage that they've created. I said, well, I said we have a problem here. And I knew they weren't going to tell the president."
Nunes said that because of the ongoing Russia investigation, and questions of what ties the Trump campaign may have had to what happened, he didn't think what he found would be given to Trump unless he delivered the information himself.
Democrats said at the time that Nunes' role as a member of the Trump transition team coupled with his taking the information to the White House before sharing it with others on the committee showed he couldn't lead an impartial investigation. They demanded he recuse himself.
The House Ethics Committee is looking into allegations that Nunes mishandled classified information.
Nunes called the ethics allegations "character assassination" lodged "by every left wing group in America." Nunes cited the allegations as the reason for his decision in a statement at the time, but at the dinner he had a different justification.
The congressman told the Republicans that he stepped down to protect Valadao and other members of the party from being hounded about the issue. Valadao's district voted for Clinton by a wide margin, and he's on Democrats' target list for 2018.
"The reporters and the national news were going to chase David and every other member of Congress around the country for the next two weeks. Basically what I said, I said, 'Well, screw you,'" Nunes said. The crowd laughed and applauded. "So I did something that they never thought I would do and I stepped aside, and I gave them a gift."
That gift is Trey Gowdy, Tom Rooney and Mike Conaway, the three representatives he named to take over the investigation, Nunes said, complimenting his GOP colleagues.
"And guess what? When these ethics charges are gone then I'm going to be back again."
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Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics