WASHINGTON – Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, appears to have moved from criticizing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to strategizing about how to blunt its impact should it imperil President Donald Trump.
The most promising instrument in this effort, he suggested, is retaining a GOP-controlled Congress. But even if he had been speaking publicly, the eight-term Republican might not have chosen his words differently.
He is an adamantly pro-Trump lawmaker who in February released a memorandum accusing the intelligence community of conspiring against the president. In May, he sought documents from the Justice Department – as part of his investigation into the law enforcement officials leading the Russia inquiry – that senior intelligence officials argued could expose a top source and endanger lives.
But it was in private, at a closed-door fundraiser for a Republican colleague, that Nunes took the new step of tying the investigation to the midterm elections this fall. In comments captured in an audio recording aired Wednesday by “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Nunes laid out in stark terms the rationale for preserving the GOP majority in Congress.
“If Sessions won't unrecuse and Mueller won't clear the president, we're the only ones, which is really the danger,” Nunes said at an event for Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, referring to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, and Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
Sessions said last year that he would keep his distance from inquiries related to the 2016 election owing to his role in Trump's campaign – a move that has frustrated the president, leading him to blame his own attorney general for the “Russian Witch Hunt Hoax.”
“I mean, we have to keep all these seats,” Nunes added. “We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.”
Maddow said on her show that the tape was made by a progressive organization called Fuse Washington that paid for entrance into the fundraiser, held July 30 in Spokane, Washington. A spokesman for Nunes didn't return a request for comment.
The remarks drew immediate rebuke from Democrats. Rep. Ted Lieu, also of California, called on Nunes to resign, saying his comments ran counter to the oath of office he had taken upon entering Congress.
“Under our Constitution, the duty of Congress is not to clear the President. The duty of Congress is to be a check and balance on the Executive Branch, and to pursue the facts wherever they may lead,” Lieu tweeted.
Also at the fundraiser, Nunes blamed the Senate's schedule – and the interest in swiftly confirming Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court – for the failure of the House to take up impeachment proceedings against Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
Just days before Nunes' closed-door remarks in Washington state, a group of conservative lawmakers introduced a resolution calling for Rosenstein's impeachment, though they stopped short of forcing a vote on the matter.
“I've said publicly Rosenstein deserves to be impeached,” Nunes said. “I don't think you're gonna get any argument from most of our colleagues. The question is the timing of it right before the election.”
At another point during the fundraiser, he addressed the issue of collusion, considering a hypothetical situation in which a campaign received stolen emails from a foreign power and then released them, labeling this activity “criminal.”
Finally, Nunes, touted by the president as a “Great American Hero,” revealed at the fundraiser that even he sometimes winces at the Trump's online communications. He called the president's tweets a “mixed bag.”
“Like sometimes you love the president's tweets, sometimes we cringe on the president's tweets,” he said, attempting to discredit Mueller's purported examination of Trump's inflammatory posts as part of his inquiry into possible obstruction of justice.
“This is all political,” Nunes said.