Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence regarding NSA surveillance in Washington, Tuesday, June 18, 2013.
Charles Dharapak/AP

Donald Trump’s most important friend in Congress

When Donald Trump launched his new wiretap conspiracy theory, congressional Republicans said very little. GOP lawmakers were reportedly “confused” by the president’s strange ideas, and largely avoided commenting on the new allegations.

NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin noted, “In ordinary times, such an accusation would send both parties and the White House scrambling into action with demands and counter-demands for an immediate investigation. But Trump is not an ordinary president and the initial response from his own side was so muted as to barely be audible.”

It’s an extraordinary development in its own right. It’s as if Republican leaders on Capitol Hill simply don’t take Trump’s allegations – which is to say, claims of wrongdoing from a president of their own party – seriously.

There were, however, exceptions.
House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said on Sunday that his committee will “make inquiries” into whether President Barack Obama’s administration eavesdropped on campaign officials before the 2016 election, as President Donald Trump has baselessly claimed it did.

“One of the focus points of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation is the U.S. government’s response to actions taken by Russian intelligence agents during the presidential campaign,” Nunes said in a statement. “As such, the Committee will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates, and we will continue to investigate this issue if the evidence warrants it.”
There’s no evidence such surveillance activities ever happened, but the White House wants Nunes to look into it, and the California Republican is happy to oblige by making “inquiries.” (This may backfire: if Nunes follows through, he’ll find that either Trump made all of this up, or there was enough evidence against Trump to get a court order.)

The same day, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee went on to tell the Washington Post how correct Trump is about opposition the White House is facing from the U.S. intelligence community and elsewhere.

“It’s not paranoia at all when it’s actually happening. It’s leak after leak after leak from the bureaucrats in the [intelligence community] and former Obama administration officials - and it’s very real,” the lawmaker said.

I can appreciate the fact that Nunes may feel a sense of partisan loyalty towards Trump – the GOP congressman was a member of the president’s executive transition team – but this is getting a little out of hand. The chairman of the Intelligence Committee is supposed to be overseeing an investigation into Russian efforts to help put Trump in office, not playing the role of sycophantic cheerleader.

And yet, Nunes frequently acts as if he were on the White House’s payroll, effectively serving as one of Trump’s press secretaries, even going so far as to call reporters to wave them off the scandal the congressman is supposed to be examining.

In mid-February, Nunes even argued publicly that he wouldn’t ask the White House questions about Michael Flynn lying about his communications with Russia because of “executive privilege.” As we discussed at the time, the way executive privilege usually works, Congress demands answers from the White House and the West Wing responds by arguing that discussions between a president and his/her top aides are protected and shielded from lawmakers’ scrutiny. In this case, however, Nunes, despite working in an entirely different branch of government, was preemptively making Trump’s case for him, doing his part to block the question before it was even asked.

Two weeks later, Nunes again ran interference for the White House, telling reporters Trump probably didn’t communicate with Flynn about Russian sanctions because the president is “busy.” A Washington Post report said the California congressman “was already under fire for making it look as though he isn’t entirely neutral,” a dynamic made worse by “bending over backward to see the best in the White House.”

When the chair of the Intelligence Committee effectively becomes an extension of Team Trump, there’s a problem.

Donald Trump, House Republicans and Intelligence

Donald Trump's most important friend in Congress