For the past two weeks of historic public impeachment hearings against President Trump, Rep. Devin Nunes has played the role of high-profile inquisitor.
Now, Nunes (R-Tulare) finds himself cast differently, entangled in the same chain of events the committee has been probing -- whether Trump and his allies sought to turn rumors and intrigue in Ukraine into a source of political attacks against Democrats in the U.S., especially former Vice President Joe Biden.
Late Friday, CNN reported that Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Trump personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, was prepared to tell Congress that Nunes had met late last year in Vienna with Viktor Shokin, formerly the top Ukrainian prosecutor, to obtain information about the Bidens. The network cited one of Parnas’ lawyers as the source of the allegation.
On Sunday, in a Fox News interview, Nunes declined to directly answer a question about that allegation, but threatened to sue CNN for reporting it.
“Bottom line, were you in Vienna with Shokin?” asked Fox interviewer Maria Bartiromo.
“I really want to answer all these questions,” Nunes replied. But the congressman said he was unable to do so “because there is criminal activity here; we’re working with different law-enforcement agencies.”
“I think you can understand that I can’t compete by trying to debate this out with the public media when 90% of the media are totally corrupt,” he said.
“Everyone’s going to know the truth; everyone’s going to know all the facts,” Nunes said. “I will win in court.”
The Nunes-Shokin allegation is a new twist in the impeachment saga, which has so far failed to breach an unyielding wall of support for Trump by GOP lawmakers.
Democrats seized on the allegation to portray Nunes as part of the effort to enlist Ukrainians to do political dirty work for Trump.
“Look, I don’t know what happened on that trip, but the allegation is that Devin Nunes used federal funds to fly himself and a couple of staffers over there in the search of dirt on Biden,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“That’s actually what the president is accused of doing -- misusing public dollars for a political purpose.”
Himes said that based on Nunes’ behavior in the course of the impeachment inquiry, he had little faith that the Central Valley congressman was interested in establishing facts, believing rather that he was determined to defend Trump at any cost.
“If you watched Devin Nunes for five minutes in these hearings, you know that he has given over to the – utterly – to the defense of the president, and more importantly, to the propagation of fantastical conspiracy theories,” Himes said.
Throughout the two weeks of public hearings, Nunes, who along with Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) was allowed to give opening and closing statements as the testimony proceeded, poured scorn on the process, calling the hearings “bizarre,” a “kangaroo court” and a “circus.”
The president has railed about what he calls the inquiry’s unfairness and blocked the release of documents and testimony by senior aides, including Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who could shed firsthand light on events described by witnesses who for the most part did not deal directly with Trump.
If Parnas testifies about other aspects of the inquiry, he should address any role he played in brokering contacts between Shokin and Trump allies, Himes said.
Shokin is a key figure in the Ukrainian scandal. The former prosecutor was forced out in March 2016 as part of an anti-corruption drive by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Biden joined in the international effort to push Shokin out.
Trump and his backers have repeatedly suggested that Biden engineered Shokin’s firing to protect his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. U.S. officials who testified in the impeachment inquiry said that was false. The U.S. allies and international organizations that pushed for Shokin’s dismissal said at the time that the then-prosecutor general was corruptly blocking investigations into wrongdoing in Ukraine.
The allegation of Shokin meeting Nunes comes from Joseph Bondy, an attorney for Parnas. The lawyer said Shokin told Parnas that he met last December in Vienna with Nunes, who traveled there on congressional business. Parnas was willing to offer congressional testimony about that and other matters, the lawyer said.
Parnas and another Giuliani associate, Igor Fruman, were arrested in October and charged with campaign finance law violations tied to the ultimately successful effort to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
On Saturday, a Democratic House committee head, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), told MSNBC it was “quite likely” that Nunes would face a House ethics investigation over the allegation. Smith chairs the House Armed Services Committee.
Schiff, who as Intelligence Committee chairman has been a principal foil of Nunes, did not go that far in an interview on Sunday when asked what sort of scrutiny Nunes might face in the House.
Interviewed on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Schiff said that if Nunes “was on a taxpayer-funded” trip “and I say if -- seeking dirt on a potential Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden, that would be an ethics matter.”
Schiff said the main interest of the Intelligence Committee, which until now has taken the lead in the impeachment proceedings, was establishing actions ordered by Trump that pertained to Ukraine.
“I don’t want to comment on what the Ethics Committee should do, particularly vis-à-vis the ranking member of my committee,” Schiff said.
Nunes, who has filed several lawsuits against news organizations that have written about him, as well as a parody account on Twitter, has threatened to sue both CNN and the Daily Beast, which also reported the alleged contact with Shokin.
CNN’s media reporter Oliver Darcy tweeted on Friday that when approached for comment on the allegation, Nunes replied: “I don’t talk to you in this lifetime or the next lifetime,” adding “At any time, on any question.”
But he did speak to Breitbart about the CNN report, calling it “demonstrably false.”
Giuliani, in a Fox News interview on Saturday, said that Nunes had denied meeting with Shokin, but added that if the two were in contact, “there would’ve been nothing wrong with it.”
Some Intelligence Committee members have called publicly for testimony from Parnas. Speaking to National Public Radio on Saturday, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said it would be “valuable to hear from him, because we want to know just how far this work extended” on behalf of Giuliani and Trump.