In early December 2016, Devin Nunes was growing suspicious.
The political and media establishment, still struggling to cope with the news of Donald Trump’s victory, was beginning to claim that Russian cyber meddling explained the surprising outcome. On Dec. 9, 2016, big media outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post began laying out the contours of what would become the dominant and relentless media narrative of the next several years: Trump had conspired with Russia to steal the election and should not be viewed or treated as a legitimate president.
Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), was a long-time Russia hawk who had spent years concerned about the United States’ lack of preparedness for Russian cyberattacks. But something didn’t sit right about the how the media and other activists were arriving at the narrative.
For one thing, the claims were significantly at odds with the official reports from the intelligence agencies his committee oversaw. For another, the press reports were fed solely by dubiously selective and anonymous leaks from intelligence officials.
“I am deeply concerned that these press reports may contain unauthorized disclosures,” Nunes wrote on Dec. 12, 2016, to President Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, instructing him to have intelligence agencies send to Congress any new assessments that had been reported in the press. He expressed concern about the “manipulation of intelligence for political purposes” two days later. By December 16, having received none of the new assessments that anonymous leakers to the press claimed existed, he vowed to vigorously investigate intelligence agencies’ handling of the Russian meddling issue.
He had no idea at the time, but Nunes’s early skepticism of the “Russia collusion” plan to undermine the Trump administration put him in the crosshairs of all of the most powerful forces in Washington, including the media, the Democrat Party, left-wing special interest groups, intelligence agency officials, and even many Republicans.
Nunes’s dogged pursuit of the truth paid off, eventually, but it wasn’t easy. The “Russia collusion” narrative caused untold damage to the Trump administration and its policy goals. It sparked a years-long special counsel probe that pursued scores of Trump associates but found none who had colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election. Journalists won Pulitzers and other prizes for perpetuating the false narrative. Even now, many Democrats still cling to claims of Trump being controlled by Vladimir Putin.
However, Nunes overcame the media and Democrat hysteria, as well as stonewalling and obstruction by the FBI and Justice Department (DOJ), including threats to his own staff, to uncover the FBI’s use of an unverified dossier of outlandish allegations in the warrants to spy on Carter Page, a Trump campaign associate. He revealed rampant “unmasking” by Obama officials against Trump transition members, and the fact that FBI agents who interviewed Trump’s first National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn didn’t think he was lying.
He waged a court battle with the inventors of the dossier to find out that their work was secretly funded by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. And he revealed how that group employed Nellie Ohr, the wife of DOJ official Bruce Ohr, who was used to funnel questionable anti-Trump information to the FBI from his wife and her associates.
He also overcame the concerted efforts to destroy him and his reputation, remove him from committee leadership, prevent his re-election, and to get him to pull back from his work through threats against family members.
Later today he is expected to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
Water, Water, Water
That Nunes would have the fortitude to take on the political and media establishments was not completely obvious when he was first elected to Congress in 2002. He was all of 29, representing a congressional district in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California, where he grew up. From a family of dairy farmers — a point that a critic on MSNBC would later use to dismiss him as ignorant — Nunes was known for his fierce advocacy of his constituents’ interest.
He set up his offices to quickly respond to constituent questions, reminding staff that they were the last line of hope for many of the California residents writing and calling them, and that they were to do what it took to solve their problems related to government services. One former staff member said that the “number one, two, three, four, and five” issues they worked on were “water.”
A lot of that effort was due to environmentalists imposing a catastrophic and artificial drought on many Central Valley farmers in the name of protecting a fish called the Delta Smelt. Nunes pushed that story relentlessly until he achieved national awareness of the plight of farmers, getting members to vote publicly on the matter, hosting rallies, and talking about the absurdity of the regulations destroying California farms.
Water policy in agricultural areas is always a hot-button and complicated topic. Hill aides say that many politicians like to complicate topics so people get lost in the intricacies. Nunes, they said, liked to simplify things so everyone could grasp the problem and solve it. He showed he was willing to buck party interests in his quest to serve constituents, calling on California’s Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to resign when he wasn’t allowing water to flow to the Central Valley.
Nunes, who also serves on the Ways and Means Committee, was appointed to the Intelligence Committee in 2011. He became chairman in 2015. The committee was an important, but relatively quiet, one. It investigated the Benghazi disaster, and worked to declassify some of the documents seized in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound.
Once chairman, Nunes worked with ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, also of California, to pass the annual funding authorization for the intelligence community. Nunes worked with leadership to recruit and retain a team of hard-working members who were interested in doing oversight and not just having a title.
As the Russia narrative spiraled out of control, Nunes continued to express skepticism. After Flynn’s phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak were leaked, Nunes told Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, “There does appear to be a well orchestrated effort to attack Flynn and others in the administration,” he said. “From the leaking of phone calls between the president and foreign leaders to what appears to be high-level FISA Court information, to the leaking of American citizens being denied security clearances, it looks like a pattern.”
The Mask Drops
Russia hoaxers had managed to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any oversight of the probe. They continued to leak like sieves against the president. Anonymous intelligence officials falsely claimed to credulous reporters that the ludicrous “dossier” was being verified, although details and substantiation were always just around the corner.
In March 2017, Nunes revealed that in the last three months of the Obama presidency, significant personal information from and about the Trump transition was collected and widely disseminated at intelligence agencies. While he said the collection of information may have been legally collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), he was “alarmed” by it. In a free country, where watchdogs care about threats to privacy from government surveillance, this would have been a massive story.
Instead of covering the news, the political and media establishment worked to kill the story. Rather than focus in any way on the spying, they claimed to be upset that Nunes didn’t first brief his leaky and highly partisan colleague Schiff before holding a press conference. As for the substance of the claims, the media worked to avoid covering it in any detail.
PBS’ Judy Woodruff asked Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice a gentle, very general question about Nunes’s claims:
JUDY WOODRUFF: I began by asking about the allegations leveled today by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes that Trump transition officials, including the president, may have been swept up in surveillance of foreigners at the end of the Obama administration.
SUSAN RICE: I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.
It turns out that Rice was completely lying on national television. After word got out that Rice had, in fact, been one of the people to “unmask” transition officials who had been swept up in surveillance, she went to the Democratic journalist Andrea Mitchell for a damage control interview. Rice, who has a reputation for dishonesty, told Mitchell that her unmaskings weren’t “political” and added, somewhat confusingly, “I leaked nothing to nobody.”
It wasn’t just Rice. Samantha Power unmasked nearly 300 Americans in 2016, despite U.S. ambassadors having little if any legitimate justification for unmasking. She claimed that the unmaskings done in her name were actually done by other, unknown people.
And a whopping 39 Obama officials unmasked Flynn, a frequent victim of leaked communications. Among the unmaskers were officials with little legitimate need to access this kind of intelligence. They include former Vice President Joe Biden, Power, and Obama’s Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough.
The media response to the entire Russia collusion hoax was so manic and horrifically corrupt that it marked a turning point in Nunes’s engagement with them. He began to see that many members of the media weren’t journalists, but liars, and treated them accordingly. He instructed staff to stop responding to dishonest reporters who had pre-written their stories before contacting him.
Many members of Congress are scared of the media and other powerful interests. If they get attacked by them, they back down. Staff say that’s where Nunes is different. If he gets punched by someone, he wonders why and starts looking for answers. The more that he was attacked, the more he wanted to understand what was behind the Russia collusion narrative.
His opponents couldn’t have been more wrong in how to contain him.
FISA Abuse Memo
The media frenzy and coordinated opposition to Nunes led to claims that he had to recuse himself from leading the investigation into Russian collusion. Three left-wing groups filed an ethics complaint that Nunes’s mentioning of the unmasking constituted mishandling classified information. The claim was picked up by the Ethics Committee. While they eventually dismissed the complaint, they publicly announced the investigation and took the better part of the year to investigate it.
Nunes did recuse himself from leading the probe into Russian meddling, instead focusing on abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process during the surveillance of Trump campaign affiliates. The task was made significantly difficult by the DOJ’s general refusal to comply or comply fully with information requests on the surveillance.
The memo broke the news that the “Steele dossier” formed an essential part of the application to spy on Trump affiliate Carter Page, and that the warrant failed to note that Clinton and the DNC funded the dossier. It showed that Steele should have been fired as a source for blabbing to the press before he was eventually fired for the same reason.
It showed that information from Steele continued to be funneled to the FBI through a DOJ official married to someone else working on the larger dossier project, and that the negative information he provided the FBI about Steele’s lack of credibility was kept away from the FISA Court. Ohr, the DOJ official, also funneled to the Bureau his wife’s work for opposition research firm Fusion GPS.
All of these relationships were kept concealed from the FISA Court. Nunes’s memo revealed that the dossier had not been even close to verified when it was used in the application.
All of these things are now common knowledge and have been reported via other means, such as the DOJ’s inspector general, declassification of underlying documents, and a few media investigations. But at the time they were published, they seriously undercut the Russia collusion narrative and provoked strenuous denunciation of Nunes.
The Department of Justice said that release of memo would be “extraordinarily reckless,” would be “damaging” to “national security,” and would risk “damage to our intelligence community or the important work it does in safeguarding the American people.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said it was a “gift to Putin.”
When the report was released, the media made a variety of contradictory claims, all of them downplaying or dismissing the memo as nothing whatsoever. “Why Were The Democrats So Worried About The Nunes Memo?” asked The New Yorker. Rachel Maddow said that, far from destroying national security, instead the memo delivered “a sad trombone for Trump.” “It’s a joke and a sham,” claimed Washington Post writers.
“The memo purports to show that the process by which the FBI and Justice Department obtained approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to conduct surveillance on former Trump adviser Carter Page was deeply tainted,” the Post article says. “It does this by straining every which way to suggest that the basis for the warrant was the so-called ‘Steele dossier,’ which contains Democratic-funded research by former British spy Christopher Steele.” (The inspector general later confirmed that efforts to secure a warrant to spy on Page were dropped due to lack of evidence until Steele delivered his dossier memos.)
On the other hand, Salon called the memo “fake news.” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who fervently believes that Trump is a traitor who colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election, all evidence to the contrary, went even further. “The Nunes Memo Is Fake and the Russia Scandal Is Very Real,” he claimed. “While the evidence that the DOJ has been corrupt or even sloppy in its investigation has disintegrated, evidence for the seriousness of the investigation itself has grown progressively stronger,” Chait claimed.
CNN had their good buddy James Clapper, a famously untruthful Obama intelligence chief, on to say that the memo was a “blatant political act.” John Brennan, Obama’s mendacious CIA chief who was also implicated in the spying on the Trump campaign, told Politico that the memo was “exceptionally partisan.” Politico claimed the memo “makes no sense.”
“Nunes Memo Accidentally Confirms the Legitimacy of the FBI’s Investigation,” asserted The Intercept. “All Smoke, No Fire,” claimed resistance member Orin Kerr in The New York Times. “The Nunes Memo Continues To Backfire,” declared the hyperpartisan Washington Post editorial board.
Schiff issued a response memo in which he claimed that everything was above reproach in the FISA process. “Nail in the Coffin for Nunes Memo,” declared the headline of a U.S. News and World Report article that effusively praised Schiff.
“Nunes’ memo was a bad joke from the start,” the author wrote, going on to assert that Page was a dangerous agent of Russia, multiple Trump campaign operatives were surveilled for excellent reason, and the ex-British spy secretly Clinton hired to produce the dossier alleging Trump was a secret agent of Russia was simply beyond reproach.
An inspector general report later vindicated Nunes’s memo and discredited each of the claims in Schiff’s memo. Schiff claimed he was “unaware” of the problems the IG found and continues to defend the FBI investigation even now. He has not held a single hearing on the IG report, nor on the conviction of FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith for doctoring evidence for use in a Page spy warrant.
The daily onslaught of Russia collusion stories made life difficult for anyone who stood against the tide. The media were in a constant state of hysteria. Nunes stood mostly alone in insisting there was no evidence Trump had colluded with Russia, but there were strong indications the FBI’s investigation of the issue had been corrupted. It wasn’t just Democrats, media operatives, and leftwing groups who were attacking him but even fellow Republicans.
Sen. Lindsay Graham frequently appeared on television in the last year to complain about the Russia collusion hoax. He even held a couple of hearings in the fall of 2020 — long after it mattered. But back in 2017, Graham went on NBC News to mock Nunes, saying he was running “an Inspector Clouseau investigation.” Republican Rep. Walter Jones called on Nunes to resign from the committee leadership.
National Review’s David French called on Nunes to resign his post, and went on left-wing MSNBC to promote his view that Nunes lacked “integrity, character, and — crucially — competence,” saying it was “time” for Nunes to go. French claimed that Trump voters in his area of Tennessee were extremely worried about Trump’s ties to Russia and would need someone with better traits to dig into the matter.
It was a vicious claim against a member known as a straight shooter. The attacks were difficult for Nunes and his staff. For decades, he had taught his staff that they should always be honest when dealing with constituents, that they should “tell the truth until it hurts.” Constituents may not like the congressman’s position, but they would know what his true position was. “As far as Devin as a politician, ‘straight shooter’ is a little on the nose,” said one former top aide.
MSNBC’s John Heilemann repeatedly suggested Nunes was “compromised by the Russians:”
‘[Nunes is] behaving like someone who’s been compromised, and there are people in the intelligence community, and others with great expertise in this area, who look at him and say, ‘That guy’s been compromised,” Heilemann told [Senator Chris] Murphy.
Heilemann did not note that Nunes has a lengthy reputation as a Russia hawk, having warned that Russian activity was the country’s “biggest intelligence failure since 9/11” and having stridently advocated for a stronger U.S. approach to Putin.
Shep Smith called Nunes’s memo a “weapon of partisan mass distraction, especially at a pivotal moment in American democracy when it behooves the man in charge for supporters to believe the institutions can’t be trusted, the investigators are corrupt and the news media are liars. Context matters.”
As Nunes’s influence grew, he was subject to constant media attacks, including tendentious “profiles” that were error-filled hit pieces. Reporters went after his family. Nunes’ wife received threats after a Democratic operative files a public records request against her to get her work emails (she’s a public school teacher), then published them on the Internet. Then leftwing group Campaign for Accountability cited the emails in an ethics complaint against Devin.
Esquire’s Ryan Lizza published a lengthy story alleging that Nunes had a “politically explosive secret,” that he’s a hypocrite on immigration policy, and that when Lizza went to a small town in Iowa to blow open the conspiracy, he was met by odd townspeople who treated him poorly. It turned out that Nunes didn’t have a secret, that he was not a hypocrite on immigration policy, and that the Iowans Lizza met were wary of him slowly driving around town while children were at play because they discovered Lizza had recently been fired from his job for sexual misconduct.
A Top Political Target for Years
Nunes became a top target of the Democrats, left-wing groups, and the media because they could see early on he’d be a problem for their Russia collusion narrative. His seat even became a top Democratic target in 2018. Nunes had enjoyed comfortable leads in his previous re-election campaigns, even if he treated each race as a serious contest. In 2016, he won with 68 percent of the vote.
In 2018, his opponent was a relative unknown, a prosecutor with no political background who had moved into the district. Thanks to a massive, coordinated nationwide effort from leftwing groups, Andrew Janz raised more than $9 million and gave Nunes the closest race he’d had in a long while. The race earned national attention from the media and other activist groups.
Leftist groups astroturfed regular protests filled with angry people from outside the district posing as constituents at Nunes’s field offices. They overwhelmed his robust constituent service operation with angry calls from across the country. Much of it was Russia focused.
At one point, Janz had an actor pose as a Russian official to give Nunes a “key to Moscow.” Fusion GPS, the group that had been behind the Steele dossier, even admitted that Nunes was the only member of Congress on whom they ran an oppo hit during the 2018 campaign. They gave their information to a McClatchy newspaper and tried, but failed, to link Nunes to a dramatic story involving a separate group of people having a cocaine-fueled fundraiser on a yacht owned by a winery he was loosely associated with.
Targeted in D.C. by media mobs and in his home district by a major coordinated effort to oust him, he kept going. At a time when anybody in D.C. who fought the Russia collusion hoax was hammered and attacked, Nunes went out and pushed for the truth. He did it willingly and refused to quit. He also refused to give in to his many attackers, despite their relentless barrage.
When the White House leaked to the Washington Post about their plans to award Nunes and Rep. Jim Jordan the presidential medal of freedom, the media and political figures who pushed the Russia collusion hoax continued their attacks on him, the same attacks they’d been making for years in an attempt to keep him from uncovering abuses of the intelligence agencies he oversees.
It is unlikely their latest efforts will work any better than their earlier ones.