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Why the House GOP's stunt targeting Eric Swalwell is so ridiculous

If Kevin McCarthy really wants to talk about which party is "choosing politics over national security," he may not like where this conversation ends up.
Image: Eric Swalwell speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 17, 2017.Alex Brandon / AP file

After their preoccupation with Dr. Seuss failed to pay dividends, House Republican leaders redirected their attention at, of all people, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). The Associated Press reported on the latest developments:

The House has dismissed a Republican attempt to remove California Rep. Eric Swalwell from the House intelligence panel over his contact more than six years ago with a suspected Chinese spy who targeted politicians in the United States. Democrats scuttled the effort from House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, 218-200, after he forced a vote.

The roll call from last night's vote is online here. Note, of the 211 Republicans currently serving in the chamber, 200 voted to remove Swalwell from the House Intelligence Committee, eight did not vote, and three voted "present" for some reason.

And why, pray tell, do so many GOP lawmakers believe it's necessary to throw the Democratic congressman off the intelligence panel? The details are not fully available to the public, but in 2012 and 2014, a suspected Chinese operative was reportedly in contact with Swalwell's campaign and tried to make inroads.

The FBI alerted Swalwell to the concerns, at which point the congressman cut off contact with the suspected spy. By all appearances, the California lawmaker did exactly what one would expect him to do, and at no point did federal investigators accuse the congressman of wrongdoing.

In fact, as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) noted yesterday, in 2015, then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and then-Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) were briefed on the situation at the time and "expressed no opposition" to Swalwell continuing to serve on the committee.

But now, six years later, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sees partisan value in trying to turn this non-scandal into ... something.

Indeed, the House GOP leader published this unfortunate tweet last night: "Every Democrat is now on the record: They just voted to keep Eric Swalwell on the House Intelligence Committee -- despite his long-standing relationship with a reported Chinese spy. They chose politics over national security."

As a substantive matter, this is quite dumb. In fact, it's likely that McCarthy knows it's dumb, and is choosing to play a cynical little game anyway.

But what makes this stunt even more extraordinary is McCarthy's horrible timing.

This is, after all, the same week in which the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a declassified intelligence community assessment on foreign threats to the U.S. 2020 elections. The document noted, among other things, that Vladimir Putin "had purview over" the activities of Andriy Derkach, a Kremlin-backed operative who peddled disinformation as part of his efforts to interfere in our presidential race.

Derkach also, incidentally, reportedly sent unknown materials to Devin Nunes -- who was at the time, and still remains, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

In fact, one Democrat on the Intelligence panel told MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace this week, "[T]he fact is that [Russian operatives] were so comfortable using people like Devin Nunes that Andriy Derkach -- a known Russian asset -- sent information to Devin Nunes at the Intelligence Committee. We literally had the package receipt."

If Kevin McCarthy really wants to have a conversation about which party is "choosing politics over national security" as it relates to membership on the House Intelligence Committee, he may not like where this conversation ends up.

Postscript: I am, of course, mindful of the dangers of "whataboutism." For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Merriam-Webster definition is as good as any: "It is not merely the changing of a subject ('What about the economy?') to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it's essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be."

In a New York Times piece a couple of years ago, Masha Gessen described it as an "old Soviet propaganda tool."

It's also not a tactic I'm relying on here. This isn't a situation in which GOP leaders have caught a progressive congressman doing something wrong, leading me to say, "Oh yeah? Well, what about a conservative congressman facing a similar accusation?"

Rather, in this case, we have largely the opposite set of circumstances: McCarthy is falsely accusing Swalwell of wrongdoing, while ignoring the fact that Nunes reportedly received information from a Russian operative during a Russian attack on the U.S. political system.

If the House GOP leader is prepared to explain why he thinks Swalwell shouldn't be allowed to serve on the Intelligence panel because he was approached by a suspected spy, but Nunes should be allowed to remain the ranking member on that same panel after his connection with a Putin-controlled operative, I'm all ears.