Rep. Devin Nunes blew it.
The Republican from Tulare has one of the most important jobs in Congress: He is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, where he leads an investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and what, if anything, Donald Trump and his team knew about it.
He was in a position to perform a vital service. As a conservative commentator at National Review put it, “The American body politic is awash in conspiracy theories, mistrust, and wild claims of espionage and criminality. It needs leaders. It needs competence. It needs integrity.”
Had Nunes comported himself honorably, he could have followed the evidence where it led, gone before the public and credibly informed us that all the president’s men are innocent of wrongdoing – or that President Trump or someone on his team is guilty of misconduct or even treason.
Instead, Nunes failed his Central Valley district and his country.
His reputation, his credibility and his ability to do his job are in tatters due to a series of actions that suggest he is lying to the public and colluding with the Trump White House. The question is: Will his constituents do anything about it?
America can be governed better, but reform will only happen from the bottom up.
His dubious behavior became impossible to ignore last week, when he was asked by a reporter about Carter Page, a former Trump aide who met with Russia’s ambassador to the United States at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and Roger Stone, a Trump political advisor who communicated on Twitter with a hacker involved in the leak of DNC emails.
Nunes replied that he had never heard of either man.
“You’ve not heard of Carter Page or Roger Stone?” the incredulous reporter pressed.
“No,” Nunes affirmed.
Nunes was a member of the executive committee that led Trump’s transition team. It would be very surprising if he hadn’t heard of either man for that reason alone. Of course, there’s no way to prove with certainty that he was lying. But if he was being truthful, his answer suggests staggering incompetence. How could the man leading an investigation into Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election have zero knowledge of two former Trump aides widely reported to have suspicious ties to Russia?
What happened next was even more damning.
Shortly after FBI Director James Comey testified that he was investigating possible “coordination” between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, Nunes told reporters that the intelligence community had mistreated the Trump team — and that he’d seen evidence to prove it.
Other members of the House Intelligence Committee were confused. It appeared that Nunes had unearthed new information and made it public before informing fellow legislators.
Nunes apologized for that, but still didn’t reveal the whole truth.
It later emerged that Nunes was given the new information at the White House. That’s what further infuriated Democrats and caused even conservatives, like David French, the author of that National Review article, to call for Nunes to step down, both for undermining public confidence in the Russia investigation and for making it appear as if Trump’s unproven persecution claims were validated by an impartial source.
Adding insult to injury, Nunes now refuses to tell his fellow investigators on the House committee who gave him such sensitive evidence.
So far, Speaker Paul Ryan is standing by Nunes, but the people of Fresno, Clovis, Tulare and Visalia have the power — as Trump might put it — to drain the swamp. They can place calls, write letters and otherwise make clear that they won’t stand for their representative acting as a tool of the White House when charged with investigating its possible misbehavior — and that if Nunes doesn’t shape up, they’ll send someone more honorable to Washington, D.C.
The notion that a president could root out corruption in the capitol and Make America Great Again was always a pretty illusion, one that pandered to and enabled civic laziness. America can be governed better, but reform will only happen from the bottom up. Communities need to pay closer attention to what their representatives are doing and demand better. If you’re frustrated by Nunes, but live outside his district, do you know what your member of Congress has been doing? Do they know the standards that you want them to uphold on your behalf?
We’ve still got a republic. Let’s keep it.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.