Who is Devin Nunes and why is he sowing confusion in the Russia inquiry?


The congressman at center of the FBI memo storm has rushed forward to bolster Trump’s criticism of the FBI and justice department

Representative Devin Nunes of California is the chairman of the House intelligence committee, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, but the inquiry has devolved into a partisan fight. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

One night in Washington last March, Devin Nunes received a call to head to the White House to see secret intelligence reports. Over the next week, he briefed the president, failed to keep his clandestine meeting a secret, spoke expansively – if confusingly – about classified information, and earned the ire and mockery of his colleagues in Congress.

Now Nunes is back. Confusion has followed.

One year after his spirited and lonely defense of Donald Trump’s claim that he was put under surveillance by the Obama administration, tweeted without evidence, the Republican lawmaker has rushed forward on his own to bolster the president’s criticisms of the FBI and justice department. He appears unchastened by a fellow Republican who said Nunes was running his own “Inspector Clouseau investigation”, undeterred by a brush with an ethics investigation, and unbothered by the many pronunciations of his Portuguese surname.

But on Thursday, his actions had so angered Democrats that the party’s leaders in the Senate and the House both called for his removal from the House intelligence committee.

Although the panel is charged with investigating Russian interference, it has split in recent months along partisan lines, with Republicans turning their scrutiny on the original FBI investigation into Russian meddling, which began in 2016. Nunes’s office has produced a controversial memo that reportedly suggests that the FBI acquired a wiretap on a Trump associate without telling a judge enough about their sources.

The memo links the FBI investigation back to a former British spy, Christopher Steele, whose research was paid for by Democrats, and who wrote a dossier on Trump that contains a series of controversial, though unverified, claims. Republicans on the committee have also fixated on texts criticizing Trump by an FBI agent, Peter Strzok, who was temporarily in charge of the separate investigations into Hillary Clinton and Trump. Strzok also pushed for reopening an investigation into Clinton before the 2016 election, and was removed from the Trump investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The memo was written by aides to Republican​ Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a staunch defender of Donald Trump and member of Trump’s transition team. The committee is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, but the inquiry has devolved into a partisan fight about the ​separate FBI investigation​, now​ led by special counsel Robert Mueller​. 

As of Thursday morning, the public does not know the memo’s specifics, only its broad contours. The memo reportedly revolves around a wiretap on Carter Page, a brief adviser to the Trump campaign and a figure on the FBI’s radar for years​. According to reports, the memo criticizes investigators who applied for the wiretap, saying they used material provided by a former British agent, Christopher Steele, without sufficiently disclosing their source to the judge. Steele was employed by a freelance research firm, which in turn had been hired by Democrats. The memo criticizes these omissions; it is not clear whether it mentions other factors that led to the investigation, such as how Australian officials tipped off American counterparts to suspicious remarks from another Trump aide, George Papadopoulos.

The memo also reportedly criticizes the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, for approving continued surveillance of Page. ​Rosenstein is the justice department official with authority to fire Mueller should he find evidence of misconduct. Rosenstein has said he has not seen any such evidence. The president, said to dislike Rosenstein, could fire and replace him.

The FBI has ​argued against the memo’s release, saying: “We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Democrats have written a rebuttal and sided with the bureau against Republicans, who largely support the release. ​The president has told lawmakers he “100%” supports the memo’s release, and has reportedly told associates that he believes the memo will help discredit the special counsel investigation into Russian interference, his campaign’s potential role in it, and any attempts to obstruct justice. Alan Yuhas

The FBI has urged against the memo’s release, suggesting its contents were misleading, in a rare unsigned statement: “We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” The texts were revealed in the course of an internal justice department review into how the FBI handled an investigation of Clinton’s private email servers.

Both the memo and the texts dovetail with allegations of FBI bias propagated on rightwing media, such as Fox News, which the president watches frequently. Hosts such as Sean Hannity, who is close to Trump, have used them as a stick to batter the integrity of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling and potential obstruction of justice by the Trump White House.

Nunes, who has provided much of this fodder, was one of Trump’s first supporters in Congress and an adviser to his transition team after the election. Despite his stated outrage about a wiretap on one of Trump’s former campaign advisers, he has strongly supported government surveillance powers since he was elected in 2002 to Congress, aged 29, by a rural district of central California. He began his career in public service there six years earlier, as a board member of a community college.

Most recently, Nunes worked hard to extend the government’s surveillance powers for six years, in some cases without a warrant. Trump signed the bill into law last month, after writing a series of contradictory tweets. Nunes’s efforts have not gone entirely unnoticed. Asked whether he felt vindicated by the lawmaker’s sudden visit to the White House to give a briefing based on White House sources, Trump told reporters, “I somewhat do.”

“I very much appreciated the fact they found what they found,” he said.

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