In the age of Trump, political paranoia has skyrocketed. In part, such paranoia is due to the unprecedented nature of his candidacy, and subsequent election.
President Trump himself is partly to blame. The president’s tweets and remarks regarding wiretapping and election rigging have certainly played a part in heightening the general sense among American voters that politicians in Washington are behaving unscrupulously. The progressive scramble to find dirt that would destroy Trump’s presidency has also contributed to the growing snowball of political distrust.
These factors have combined to create an atmosphere in which accusations of impropriety are more frequently lobbed. When paranoia is amplified in this way, it’s easy to conflate issues.
Enter Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
On Tuesday, March 21, Nunes allegedly went to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to view confidential documents relating to the possible surveillance of President Trump’s transitional team. He held a press conference the following day regarding the intel, then briefed the president.
Nunes refused to reveal his sources, but they have been potentially identified by The New York Times as “Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and was previously counsel to Mr. Nunes’s committee.”
According to CNN:
Nunes’ disclosure that Trump’s own communications may have been picked up in “incidental” collections by domestic spies –and decision to speak to the press and White House before informing the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee – infuriated Democrats and led him to apologize to his colleagues on the panel. Trump has said he feels “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’ findings.
Many Democratic politicians and progressive pundits jumped on Nunes after the intel revelation, saying he should recuse himself from the House investigation pertaining to alleged Trump/Russia ties. They seem to believe that he’s been compromised; that his visit to the White House grounds in order to review information at the behest of his sources means he’s in cahoots with the Trump administration.
Politico writes that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) questions the circuitous route the intel took:
Both of these staffers presumably would have had the ability to brief Trump themselves on the evidence they uncovered, rather than providing it to Nunes to take to the president.
To Schiff, this apparently points to potential collusion with the White House, and a closeness between Rep. Nunes and team Trump that requires recusal. However, as Victor Davis Hanson writes in National Review:
We still do not know why Nunes’s sources, if they worked in some capacity at the White House, felt they could not report directly to the president. Were they fearful that it would seem in-house investigating, or that their own information would or would not fully support Trump’s tweet? But surely it is important that knowledge of such information is now out, that it will be fully investigated by congressional committees, and that it might set the record straight about hearsay, five months of constant leaking, and media collusion in writing stories based on unidentified sources at intelligence agencies. Fear of all that drives the current frenzy.
As of right now, conjecture is firmly planted in the driver’s seat – but has Rep. Nunes done anything unethical? Has he behaved in a way that would require recusal?
First, there’s no reason to believe Nunes mischaracterized the intel he was shown. The New York Times spoke with anonymous officials whose “description of the intelligence is in line with Mr. Nunes’s characterization of the material, which he said was not related to the Russia investigations when he first disclosed its existence.”
Second, The Daily Caller News Foundation (DCNF) writes that it is common for “intelligence committee chiefs” to travel to the Eisenhower building to view information in its “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities,” or SCIFs:
For years, intelligence committee chiefs have trekked to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue or to an intelligence agency to view such super sensitive intelligence material, because the congressional secure room can’t handle such material.
They also spoke with Col. (Ret.) Jim Waurishuk, who once worked for the National Security Council:
“Speaking from my experience, I talked to members of both sides of the aisle… I’ve done that a thousand times. I say that’s routine because that goes on all the time when you’re dealing with the intelligence committee or the armed services committees. We regularly obliged them. Cleared committee chairmen would go over the White House once or twice a week.”
Speaking in terms of hard evidence, Nunes seems to have behaved scrupulously. Perhaps for the sake of appearances, he could recuse himself – if he so desired. However, if the intel doesn’t pertain to the Trump/Russia investigation, and his run to the Eisenhower building to view that intel is not uncommon, there isn’t a strong reason for the congressman to make an exit.
Anything outside of the hard evidence we have before us is simply speculation that’s being magnified by paranoia. Unless and until evidence is brought to light that Rep. Nunes is indeed colluding with the Trump administration, or that he is too biased to investigate impartially, he should remain on the panel.