The West

How Devin Nunes is defending Trump on impeachment: Sowing doubt on Fox News

Investigating the investigators. Nightly appearances on Fox News to sow doubt about the integrity of an investigation threatening the White House. Accusing Democrats of being “unhinged,” then criticizing the “mainstream media” for covering it.

That’s how Rep. Devin Nunes worked to protect President Donald Trump while former Special Counsel Robert Mueller III investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Now that House Democrats have officially opened an impeachment inquiry, Nunes is using the same playbook.

But this time, as a member of the minority and no longer in charge of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes, R-Tulare, has fewer tools to use in defending Trump. He’s the top Republican on the committee, but the minority party has no subpoena power, severely limiting Republicans’ ability to affect congressional investigations.

Nunes has long been one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress and served on Trump’s presidential transition team after the 2016 election. Throughout 2017 and 2018, Nunes worked to shield Trump from Democrats and from the agencies looking into his presidential campaign, famously releasing excerpts of classified material in a partisan memo questioning the motives of federal investigators.

On a parallel track to his defense of Trump on impeachment, Nunes is still fighting battles from the Mueller investigation. He’s suing Fusion GPS, the firm hired by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to generate opposition research on Trump.

It’s one of five lawsuits Nunes has filed this year alleging that various groups conspired to undermine him when he was chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

“Nunes has clearly interpreted his role as a defender of the president, and you can’t separate that from how he sees his role as a congressman,” said Gordon Stables, the director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California. “I don’t think being an arbiter of truth is even part of his rhetoric at this point.”

The House, controlled by Democrats, is investigating whether Trump used his office to advance his own political interests when Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate investigate former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. They’re starting with a whistleblower complaint from someone who works from a U.S. intelligence agency, and a rough transcript of July 25 call released by the White House that shows Trump urging Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden.

How Nunes is fighting impeachment

In the past week, Nunes has questioned the origins of the impeachment inquiry by suggesting the Democratic chairman of the committee investigating Trump had a hand in orchestrating a whistleblower report on Trump’s call to Zelensky.

Nunes has disparaged how Democrats are conducting the impeachment inquiry, too. He alternately says Intelligence Committee lawmakers should be questioning officials in private hearings while at other times arguing Democrats should lay out their impeachment case in public through the House Judiciary Committee.

“This is not a real impeachment, this is like a faux impeachment,” Nunes told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday. “By keeping this at the House Intelligence Committee — we’re not built, the House Intelligence Committee is not a place to run impeachment hearings — so what they’re trying to do is hide this from the American people.”

The week before, he openly criticized Democrats for treating the investigation like a “public spectacle.”

Today, the Ukraine investigation is unfolding at the House Intelligence Committee, which has oversight over U.S. national intelligence agencies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, has said the Intelligence Committee will turn the results of its investigation over to the Judiciary Committee, which typically handles impeachment.

Nunes also sent a letter with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, demanding that the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence community give them information on how whistleblower reporting standards had changed recently. They alleged there was a “potential criminality in the handling of these matters.”

The request from Nunes stemmed from a widely shared a story in conservative outlet The Federalist, which reported that a previous version of an intelligence community whistleblower form had included a paragraph emphasizing the importance of first-hand information in complaints transmitted from the inspector general to Congress. Much of the information in the whistleblower complaint was not firsthand.

The Office of the Inspector General released a statement Monday that the whistleblower complaint had been processed according to the law, which does not require firsthand knowledge, and also noted that some parts of the complaint do include firsthand accounts.

Nunes, on an appearance on Fox News later in the week, said he hadn’t seen “any evidence” to back up the inspector general statement, and said officials still needed to respond to his request.

“He’s preaching to the converted and ignoring the reality of the evidence,” said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist. “And he goes on certain (Fox) shows so they never even question him on evidence.”

Nightly spots on Fox

Every night this week, Nunes made appearances on Fox News shows hosted by conservative commentators like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham — sometimes with tractors in the background — to suggest investigators are breaking laws.

“I don’t even believe the whistleblower actually wrote this complaint, because it’s written in a way that reads exactly like the Steele dossier,” Nunes told Fox News’ Martha MacCallum on Wednesday, referring to a dossier generated for Fusion GPS by a former British spy and referenced in the Mueller investigation.

Trump had suggested earlier that day that Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, who leads the House Intelligence Committee, had helped write the complaint.

While Schiff’s office has now admitted he knew about the complaint before it was filed, no evidence suggests he or his staff helped to write it. Schiff’s spokesman denied Schiff saw any part of the complaint before it was filed.

Nunes on Fox not only raises suspicions about Schiff, but also hints the inspector general could be guilty of wrongdoing. Nunes has repeatedly raised questions about who leaked the complaint to the press and continued to cast doubt on the integrity of the U.S. intelligence community.

Bruce Bartlett, a Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush staffer who now supports Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, has written extensively on how Fox News engages in what he calls “self-brainwashing.”

He says the creation of Fox News had “profound political implications,” and if it had existed during the investigation into former Republican President Richard Nixon, then “he would have survived.”

“The reason Nixon was forced out is because a few Republicans deserted him,” Bartlett told McClatchy. “Fox makes sure that won’t happen this time. Every Republican in office knows they will be defeated in the primary if Trump and Fox go after them.”

Nixon resigned in the midst of impeachment investigations in 1974, and the midterm elections that November saw Democrats expanding majorities in both the House — where they won 49 seats from Republicans and obtained a supermajority — and the Senate. Democrat Jimmy Carter won the next presidential election in 1976.

The 2000 election, following the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, saw the election of Republican President George W. Bush. Republicans lost seats in the House but retained a slim majority. Democrats gained four seats in the Senate, resulting in a 50-50 split among senators, with the majority decided by the Republican vice president.

Repeatedly defending Trump on impeachment will mean Nunes’ credibility is even more closely tied with Trump’s as the inquiry goes forward.

Nunes’ national reputation as Trump’s ally made his re-election bid in 2018 an unexpected battleground. He won the contest, but on the narrowest margin he’s ever had in a congressional election in nearly two decades. Democrat Andrew Janz raised $9 million to unseat him, but Nunes raised about $12 million and still beat Janz by about 5 percentage points.

“In past impeachments, the congressional defenders of the president, even if they kept their seats, had to deal with losing their credibility and support,” said Stables, the director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.