At the close of the House Intelligence Committee’s extraordinary hearing Monday into Russian intervention in the presidential election and possible ties to the Trump campaign, Committee Chair Devin Nunes gravely remonstrated with FBI Director James Comey for hanging a “big, gray cloud” over the White House. Rep. Nunes urged Comey to get the bottom of things fast. People “who have very important work to lead this country,” he declared, needed to have the matter resolved forthwith.
Who could have imagined that Nunes’s next step would be to take a running big bellyflop into the cloud himself? Because that is precisely what he achieved by briefing President Donald Trump on information he had seen showing conversations involving Trump associates and possibly Trump himself had been collected by U.S. intelligence gatherers. This information, which was “incidentally” gathered — that is, the material turned up inadvertently in collection on other targets that had been approved in a warrant by a judge — had not been presented to the Intelligence Committee beforehand.
To be clear: This information was acquired through entirely legal means and, so far as anyone knows, has never been used for inappropriate purposes. It does not in any way validate Trump’s claim that President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEx-Saudi official says he was targeted by a hit team after fleeing to Canada Republican spin on Biden is off the mark Yellen expects inflation to return to normal levels next year MORE had him wiretapped. But it sounds close enough to that to be remarkably useful to a president who painted himself into corner with that reckless charge.
Even in the rich annals of Congressional fecklessness, Nunes’s move was an instant classic. Consider the damage done: In a single trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the representative may well have broken the law by leaking classified material acquired under a FISA wiretap. This came less than 48 hours after a hearing in which he and his fellow Republicans spoke of virtually nothing but the evils of leaking classified material acquired under a FISA wiretap.
It remains unclear where the information came from. Any information from the FBI and NSA would be supplied to both Nunes and Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffAll eyes on Garland after Bannon contempt vote House votes to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Altria - Manchin heatedly dismisses rumors of leaving Democratic Party MORE, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. But Schiff had not seen the new material, and Nunes would not say where it came from.
The California Republican, however, has not ruled out what many suspect: That the ultimate source was the Trump White House itself, and this was, to use a Trumpian phrase, a ruse to help the president extricate himself from the Twitter-induced quandary created by his allegation against Obama.
The ironies proliferate. After urging Director Comey to act quickly, Nunes likely extended the life of a controversy that threatens to paralyze Washington. Although the heads of the FBI and NSA have said they know of no basis for President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE’s charge that his predecessor had his phones tapped, the information Nunes delivered yesterday led Trump to say he felt “somewhat” vindicated. Instead of nailing the coffin of Trump’s preposterous charge that Obama had him surveilled, Nunes breathed new life into the controversy.
Nunes also undermined his committee and probably did fatal damage to its investigation of the Trump-Russia connection by scurrying to brief Trump instead of presenting the material to his fellow committee members. By doing so — and his explanation for this is to dismiss it as a “judgment call” — he has demonstrated a striking obliviousness to the function of Congressional oversight of the executive branch.
Who does he, as chairman of House Intelligence, serve — the public or the president? Is he someone entrusted by the Congress with investigative powers or a presidential supplicant? For an eight-term member to be confused on this point is staggering. To echo CNN commentator Jeff Toobin, Devin Nunes appear to be a man in way, way over his head.
Wednesday, Nunes apologized to his committee for yesterday’s screw-up. But the damage is done and far-reaching: No one can now truly believe that the House Committee can manage the investigation it has undertaken — and as Senator John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' Grant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Will Trump choose megalomania over country? MORE has been saying, Congress “no longer has the credibility” to do this. It is simply too partisan, and after, if Nunes is any indication, too amateurish. The best alternative is a bipartisan inquiry along the lines of the 9/11 Commission. It remains to be seen if the Nunes affair makes the politics for that ripen.
Finally, there is also damage that may prove longer lasting and more injurious to a political culture already in real distress. Congress, like all democratic legislatures, can only work if there is trust that both sides will play by agreed rules. With Nunes’s flight to the White House, that trust looks like its been torn — and another norm of our political life may have just gone out the window.
Ambassador Daniel Benjamin is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and served as coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department 2009-2012.
The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.