Devin Nunes's Curiously Selective Memory

The chairman of the House intelligence committee, which is investigating Russia’s electoral interference, has made public statements so hard to believe that they verge on disqualifying.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican, is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is therefore leading a key probe into whether or not Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Can an inquiry he leads be trusted?

The skeptics include Evan McMullin, the former CIA operative who launched an independent bid for the presidency last year, billing himself as a conservative alternative to the Republican nominee. He says the House GOP “can't be trusted to investigate Russia & Trump's Kremlin ties,” adding, “a special select committee is needed.” And that mistrust seemed vindicated Tuesday when Nunes responded to a journalist’s question about the Russia investigation with a highly dubious answer.

The journalist was David Corn, a progressive who works at Mother Jones. He asked Nunes about Carter Page and Roger Stone, two figures whose ties to both Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia have piqued widespread interest and media coverage. Nunes insisted that he wasn’t familiar with either man.

“You haven’t heard of Carter Page and all these other people?” Corn asked.

“No,” Nunes said.

“I mean,” Corn replied, “there were about five names mentioned by the Democrats.”

“I don’t know these people,” Nunes said.

Said an incredulous Corn, “You’ve not heard of Carter Page or Roger Stone?”

“No,” Nunes insisted, “I’ve heard of Manafort,” Trump’s former campaign chairman, who was paid handsomely to do work for a pro-Russia faction in Ukraine, and was later replaced by Trump, apparently due to public controversy over those ties.

Was Nunes being honest?

Well, look closer at these people who are supposedly unfamiliar to a man leading an investigation into ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. Carter Page was a foreign-policy adviser to Trump when he was a candidate. My colleague Julia Ioffe probed the weird nature of his position in the campaign.

The New York Times reported that he traveled to Moscow to speak at a Russian university prior to the election. And he met with the Russian ambassador during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, despite previously claiming on TV that he had no such meetings. Neither act is a smoking gun proving that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. But anyone investigating the possibility would be incompetent or dishonest if they insisted that they’d never even heard of the man.

(The Senate intelligence committee has heard of him.)

It seems even less likely that Nunes has never heard of Roger Stone, given his long career in Republican politics and frequent media appearances over the years.

Stone is germane to this story because he worked on the Trump campaign and communicated on Twitter with a hacker alleged to have facilitated the leaks of DNC emails.

“One of the president’s close friends and advisers is now acknowledging some contact with a Twitter handle U.S. officials considered a front for Russian intelligence,” CBS reported. “On at least 16 different occasions during the 2016 campaign, Guccifer disclosed Democratic Party data targeting Hillary Clinton and Democratic candidates.” Again, that does not prove coordination with the Trump campaign, or that Guccifer is actually a front for Russian intelligence. For his part, Stone insists that the contact with Guccifer was “innocuous.” But it is absurd for the chair of the House intelligence committee to be unaware of Stone––so absurd that one cannot help but suspect that Nunes is lying. Hence my deeper probing.

On February 14, the New York Times  published the article “Trump Campaign Aids Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence.” It included this paragraph:

The F.B.I. has closely examined at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Mr. Flynn.

Note those three names.

The White House then asked key intelligence officials and lawmakers to debunk the article, according to the Washington Post. Nunes was one of them: “Nunes spoke on the record and was subsequently quoted in the Wall Street Journal,” the newspaper reported.

Later, on March 3, during a television interview with a local news affiliate in his district, Nunes was asked about the Russia investigation and a Fresno Bee editorial that called him a “paper tiger” who was not equipped to lead the effort.

In the course of a long, meandering series of answers, Nunes said, “I think where people are getting confused at is, there was a New York Times story where three Americans were named in that story. And I was asked whether or not I was going to bring those people before the committee and ask them questions. And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I said we cannot go on witch hunts against the American people just because their name ends up in a newspaper story, because look, we know this, all newspapers are biased … I have to be very careful not to start hunting down Americans and bringing them before the legislative branch of government just because they appeared in a newspaper story as being a friend of some foreign government.”

In other words, far from being unfamiliar with Carter Page and Roger Stone, Nunes apparently concluded weeks ago that it would be improper for his committee to call them to testify, ostensibly because he doesn’t trust the objectivity of the New York Times—this despite the fact that, as best I can tell, the local news interview happened after Page went on live television and admitted to meeting with the Russian ambassador at the RNC, reversing his prior, inaccurate public position.

In any event, Nunes needn’t have ever trusted the New York Times to figure out that both Page and Stone have ties to Russia. What he told his constituents is just not credible.

Now, weeks later, Nunes tells David Corn—and by extension, the American public—that he is flat-out unfamiliar with Page and Stone, both having been subject to massive media attention; attention including mentions in a prominent news article Nunes helped Trump rebut; mentions Nunes alluded to earlier this month.

Given all that, do you trust Nunes to run this investigation honestly?