3 reasons Devin Nunes must step away from the Trump probe
© Greg Nash

After an action-packed week for Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House committee investigating the links of Trump aides to Russian actors during the campaign and transition, Democrats have begun to call for his removal from the investigation. The problem is, Democrats are two months late: Nunes should never have led the investigation in the first place. By standard ethical guidelines, Nunes should have recused himself before the investigation got off the ground.

Nunes’s shenanigans last week included a sudden press conference to describe new classified information he had seen and then a quick trip to the White House to share the details of the information with the president — a target of the investigation. Democrats’ condemnations came swiftly. However, when asked on Friday if Nunes should recuse himself, ranking committee member Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday shows - Cheney removal, CDC guidance reverberate Schiff: Biden administration needs to 'push harder' to stop violence in Mideast Sunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans MORE backed away a bit and said "that's a decision that Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBiden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only MORE," the House Speaker, "needs to make." 

Rep. Jim Himes, another Democrat on the committee, agreed with Schiff, telling me that Nunes’s actions make it “difficult to see how he can successfully lead an investigation into an Administration to which he has such close ties. Right now, however, the House intelligence investigation is the best game in town, so we have to do everything possible to make it work and, as long as we have access to witnesses and documents, we will do our best to get to the truth."


But other Democrats, like Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Joe Kennedy III, were more assertive. Kennedy told reporters last Friday that Nunes should recuse himself due to his actions. And Raskin told me that Nunes went “over the line” and demonstrated that he is not “loyal to the investigation.” Nunes himself declined to comment.

But why have Democrats allowed Nunes to run the investigation so far? There are at least three reasons he should have recused himself immediately, and none of them have to do with his behavior last week.


First, Nunes briefed and advised the Trump campaign on intelligence early in the campaign. Trump and Ryan coordinated the development of the GOP’s broad national security plan, released last June, with the Trump campaign. Although it is not clear how many times Nunes met with and briefed Trump or his campaign aides, it is possible that this occurred during the period when Trump aides were in contact with Russian intelligence and diplomats.

Second, as mentioned in some media reports on Nunes’s actions last week, he was on Trump’s transition team. We often think of these transition efforts as large efforts including hundreds of people. Not only was Trump’s effort much smaller, Nunes served on the transition’s executive committee. This committee included Vice President-elect Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBiden, Harris release 2020 tax returns Trump signals he's ready to get back in the game Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp defends Pence book deal: report MORE as chairman, three of Trump’s children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Most of the other 12 members were Trump surrogates (remember Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich?) and aides. One of those aides was Michael Flynn, who has since resigned as national security adviser due to lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. 

Third, Nunes was quoted in The Washington Post saying that at some point during the transition, he was fielding calls from foreign leaders and ambassadors trying to reach NSA designee Flynn. As a result, it is very possible that Nunes’s conversations were also “incidentally” recorded by U.S. intelligence agencies as part of other investigations.

It is mind-boggling that Nunes did not take himself out of the committee’s investigation based on these three considerations. Not only did Nunes advise and coordinate with the Trump operation during the campaign, he also worked closely with the very people who are under investigation during the transition. Nunes’s work with the Trump operation covers the very periods before and after the election that he is investigating.

With this context, it is clear that Nunes should have recused himself from the beginning. The lawmaker’s shenanigans last week, in which he acted as a Trump surrogate rather than independent congressional investigator, flowed directly from his close history and alliance with the campaign. 

The only question is why Democrats never called for Nunes to withdraw originally. And even now, why did Schiff put the decision in Speaker Ryan’s hands? Could it be that Democrats actually want Nunes in charge because, based on his obvious bias and inability to act impartially, he will drag down the investigation until it has no integrity left — and can then only be replaced by a more appropriate impartial investigation?


Mark Feinberg, Ph.D., is a research professor of Health and Human Development at Pennsylvania State University. Reach him on Twitter @MrkFnbrg

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