He's back. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee whose bizarre behavior led to his withdrawing from the panel's investigation of Russian meddling in last year's election, resurfaced this week, again threatening the credibility of the probe.
It was in March when Nunes, without consulting his Democratic counterpart, went to the White House to brief President Trump about documents supposedly showing that Obama administration officials had improperly "unmasked" members of Trump's transition team whose names or conversations had been captured in surveillance of foreign intelligence targets. Trump, who had accused former President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, said he felt somewhat vindicated by Nunes' revelations.
But then it was reported that Nunes obtained this information from the same place he delivered it: the White House. After outside groups filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee alleging that Nunes had improperly disclosed classified information — a claim he denies — the congressman withdrew from the Russia investigation and was replaced by Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas.
The move suggested that the panel's investigation of Russian meddling and related matters wouldn't be compromised by the involvement of someone perceived to be more an advocate for the president than an impartial investigator.
But reports of Nunes' recusal have been greatly exaggerated. This week, when the committee issued Russia-related subpoenas for former national security advisor Michael Flynn and Trump's longtime attorney Michael Cohen, Nunes signed them in his role as chairman. More troubling, Nunes — acting on his own — issued subpoenas to the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency for information about Trump campaign officials who may have been unmasked. Clearly, when Nunes said he was removing himself from the investigation, he wasn't leveling with the public. Again.
Trump has tweeted that "the story that there was collusion between the Russians & Trump campaign was fabricated by Dems as an excuse for losing the election" and that the "big story is the 'unmasking and surveillance' of people that took place during the Obama administration."
Nunes thinks along strikingly similar lines. In a speech to the Tulare County Lincoln Dinner on April 7, he told the Republican audience that Democrats' enthusiasm for investigating Russia's role in the 2016 election was an attempt to explain away Hillary Clinton's loss. He also said that in investigating the unmasking he had found "a treasure trove of stuff that's really bad in terms of surveillance on Americans."
Comparing these quotations, it's obvious that Nunes can't credibly investigate either the Russian matter or the allegations — and that's all they are at this point — that Obama administration officials improperly exposed the identities of Americans caught up in surveillance of foreigners.
Nunes insists that his promise to let others "temporarily take charge" of the Russia investigation doesn't extend to the unmasking issue. That's absurd. First, there is likely to be overlap between the two investigations if some of those unmasked were investigated for ties to Russia. Equally important, Trump has tried to turn the sideshow of unsubstantiated allegations of improper unmasking into the main event as way to distract attention from the Russia "hoax."
If there are credible accusations that Obama administration officials improperly violated the privacy of Americans, including Trump advisors, the intelligence committee should investigate them. But that investigation — like the panel's inquiry into Russian interference with the election — will be more credible if Nunes is not in the room.
If Nunes doesn't come to that realization on his own, Speaker Paul Ryan should make it clear to him.