When FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress on Monday that his bureau is investigating possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russians seeking to influence our election — and shot down Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by President Obama, while the president tweeted a rival storyline in real time – our nation took another step through the looking glass.
Now it’s gotten curiouser and curiouser, to quote “Alice in Wonderland.”
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes, tried damage control for Trump on Wednesday, holding a press conference to describe US surveillance of foreigners that “incidentally” swept up conversations involving Trump’s transition team, and briefing the president on the congressional probe he’s leading. Speaking separately to reporters, the president said he felt “somewhat” vindicated for insisting Obama wiretapped him, and told Time magazine that what Nunes said “means I’m right,” a canard now refuted under oath by intelligence chiefs and clung to only by those who believe microwave ovens are spying on us.
Now Nunes, who was himself a member of Trump’s transition team, discovered that when you throw a lifeline to someone who’s treading in uncharted waters, you’re in danger of being pulled down yourself.
It’s not the first time the California Republican has rushed to administer aid to Trump. He defended National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after it was revealed he lied about discussing sanctions with Russia while Obama was still in office. The White House also enlisted Nunes two months ago to deny stories of a probe into links between Trump aides and Russian operatives — news that Comey confirmed under oath this week.
In his haste again this week to toss the president a line — however threadbare — to buoy Trump’s insistence he was spied upon, Nunes made a number of mistakes.
First, the congressman publicly discussed surveillance apparently classified under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA. That’s odd, to say the least, given that Nunes and his Republican colleagues spent most of Monday’s hearing arguing that the biggest threat to national security was not Russia, but leaks from the US national security establishment.
Second, Nunes cited an anonymous source. That’s also odd, given the White House’s attack on anonymous sources and efforts to discredit blind quotes as “fake news.”
Third, Nunes failed to share with Democratic committee colleagues his information on alleged US surveillance of foreigners that swept up conversations with Trump aides. It’s the job of his committee to provide bipartisan oversight of intelligence community actions, and in this case, to draw independent and credible conclusions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Fourth, and perhaps most troubling, Nunes discussed an ongoing investigation with the president, whose team is a subject of the probe and whose attorney general was forced to recuse himself because of undisclosed election contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Nunes apologized to the committee Thursday, but his actions cast serious doubt on the probe he’s leading, and will bolster demands for an independent special committee to take over. Already, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona called Nunes’s actions “bizarre” and told MSNBC that Congress has lost its “credibility to handle this alone,” making an independent probe a necessity. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Nunes “a stooge of the president.”
The House intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat, Representative Adam Schiff of California, was appalled, telling reporters Nunes must “decide if he’s leading an investigation” or is “a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both.” Schiff also said that evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia was “more than circumstantial.”
Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat on the committee, was incredulous Nunes would scurry off to brief a president “who is potentially a target of this investigation. No — it’s beyond absurd,” Himes told CNN, practically sputtering in disbelief.
It reminded me of Alice telling the Red Queen that one cannot believe impossible things. The Queen, accustomed to her bizarre world, retorted: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice.”
For us down in this rabbit hole, I daresay we’re getting too much practice.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in a Washington columnist and the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.