House Intel chairman under fire from all sides

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is taking fire from all sides after his startling decision to brief the president about reported surveillance of his transition team without informing his own committee, which is investigating the matter.

The backlash forced Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to apologize to committee Democrats on Thursday morning, a private mea culpa that generated praise from Republicans but a much more muted response from across the aisle.

Nunes, who hails from the Golden State’s breadbasket, where there are “more cows than people,” in his words, has rarely shied away from partisan controversy.

But on Wednesday, some say he may have gone too far. His actions threatened to explode the committee's formerly bipartisan investigation and gave ammunition to Republican critics who have called for an independent commission into President Trump's ties to Russia.

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“No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don't say that lightly,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSchiff shows clip of McCain in Trump impeachment trial Martha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women MORE (R-Arz.), told MSNBC's Greta Van Susteren on Wednesday.

The son of three generations of San Joaquin Valley farmers, Nunes, 43, has long been seen as fiercely confrontational.

But Wednesday, it was Nunes’ relationship with the president — not his sharp tongue — that drew swift scrutiny and rebuke.

In 13 years in Congress, Nunes — who was a member of Trump’s transition team — has articulated a philosophy not dissimilar from the commander-in-chief, who campaigned on the premise that America has lost its “greatness.”

In a 2010 book, Nunes warned of “America’s grim future if we continue our current trajectory.”

In a dark passage that foreshadowed the president’s description of “American carnage” in his inauguration speech, Nunes cited his own hometown, where “the radical left and big government combined to take a real-life Garden of Eden … and reduce it to a blighted, drought-stricken calamity.”

He warned that “chaos along our border has allowed drugs and gangs to enter our country with impunity.”

And much like the president, he appeared to cast himself as an outsider in the Republican Party.

He argued that his book was not intended to defend the GOP’s most recent actions, which he blamed for ushering in a “bailout culture” under former President George W. Bush.

Nunes has been an equal opportunity critic in the past, turning colorful language loose on the environmental lobby — ”followers of neo-Marxist, socialist, Maoist or communist ideals" — Republican supporters of government shutdown — “lemmings with suicide vests” — and Justin AmashJustin AmashSanders co-chair: Greenwald charges could cause 'chilling effect on journalism across the world' Trump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall MORE (R-Mich.) over his vote on a surveillance law — “al-Qaeda’s best friend.”

But after his perplexing announcement on Wednesday — and his willing embrace of the White House’s claim that leaks to the media are the “real story” in the uproar over Russian interference in the election — critics have been quick to accuse him of doing the bidding of President Trump.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday called him a “stooge” for the White House; his Democratic counterpart on the Intelligence Committee said he behaved like a “surrogate.”

“I think his credibility is pretty well shot. I’m not sure how he recovers from this,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former committee staffer and vice president of national security at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

Nunes drew scrutiny in February when he agreed to a White House request to call a reporter to dispute a report that the FBI had uncovered contact between Russian officials and the president’s campaign. He had already made a similar statement publicly.

The uproar could jeopardize his chances at the gavel of another high-profile committee he has pursued in the past: Ways and Means.

“That’s a question of timing, but it certainly could,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who is a contributor to The Hill, said in an email. “Handling stress and competing pressures happens every day when you chair an ‘A’ committee.”

It’s unclear what, exactly, Nunes revealed to the press and the president on Wednesday — and what he was hoping to accomplish by bypassing his own committee.

He told reporters that he had learned from a source that the U.S. intelligence community incidentally collected information on members of Trump’s transition team and then “widely disseminated” the information internally.

Nunes emphasized that the surveillance was completely legal — although he later suggested that it was only “perhaps” legal — and it’s still unclear whether intelligence officials inappropriately exposed the names of campaign associates swept up in routine collection internally. As of Wednesday afternoon, only Nunes had seen the intelligence in question.

On Wednesday, he defended his decision to go directly to the president with the information because it was unrelated to the Russia investigation and “the president needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there.”

But the proclamation was widely seen as an attempt to provide justification for Trump’s claim that former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer NYT correspondent rips Democrats' 'selective use' of constitutional violations Obama portraits leaving National Portrait Gallery to tour museums across the country Tulsi Gabbard explains decision to sue Hillary Clinton: 'They can do it to anybody' MORE “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the campaign — an attempt that seems to have backfired despite the president’s claim that he felt “somewhat” vindicated by the news.

The vague and at times contradictory nature of Nunes’ announcement was quickly overshadowed by speculation over his decision to go public.

Surveillance law experts concede that there is a legitimate policy conversation to be had about “unmasking” procedures — but Nunes provided little evidence to prove abuse under the Obama administration.

The net result, Mackowiak said, is that Nunes “unwittingly gave momentum to those pushing for a Select Committee, something no chairman of a committee of jurisdiction would ever want to do to himself.”