House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has stepped aside from his committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, which is just as well, given that there was no way he could credibly remain in charge. Over the past few weeks, Nunes has tainted his credibility and subverted the work of his colleagues through a series of bizarre actions that were clearly intended to provide the Trump administration political cover.
Nunes ran interference for the president’s false claims about being wiretapped, confused reporters and his fellow committee members with cryptic and hurried public statements based on information that he refused to share and dissembled about his communications with the administration he was supposed to be investigating. Now the House Ethics Committee has launched an investigation of whether Nunes inappropriately disclosed classified information, and Nunes is griping about “left-wing activist groups” sabotaging him.
While this represents a nice morsel of comeuppance for a politician who had turned his own committee into a humiliating clown show, there’s little reason to believe the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russia and the Trump campaign will be much improved by Nunes’ absence. He’s already done enough damage to the inquiry’s credibility, and the committee members he elevated to assume control of the probe aren’t exactly models of sober professionalism.
Per Nunes’ statement, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, will be taking over the Russia investigation, with assistance from Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Tom Rooney, R-Florida. Conaway, a staunch backer of Trump’s presidential campaign, has already telegraphed his belief that the Russian electoral interference he is investigating just isn’t that big a deal.
In January Conaway argued that Russian cyberattacks against Democratic political figures were on par with Democrats using “Mexican soap opera stars, singers and entertainers” to “entertain, get out the vote and so forth” in Latino communities. “Those are foreign actors, foreign people, influencing the vote,” the new leader of the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe observed. “You don’t hear the Democrats screaming and saying one word about that.” The Dallas Morning News asked Conaway if he really believed that a campaign event with telenovela stars is on the same plane as foreign cyberespionage. “Sure it is,” he said. “It’s foreign influence.”
Gowdy’s elevation to second banana in the Russian probe is also interesting. You probably remember Gowdy from his starring role as the chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which spent more than two years burning through millions of dollars only to arrive at the same conclusions as all the previous congressional inquiries concerning the Benghazi attack.
In his capacity as Benghazi committee chair, Gowdy turned his investigation into a hyperpartisan sideshow that doubled as a taxpayer funded opposition research shop targeting Hillary Clinton. The Benghazi committee leaked like a colander, with Republican operatives consistently feeding cherry-picked and misleading tidbits of information about Clinton to reporters.
When it finally came time for the Benghazi committee’s main event — a marathon public hearing with Clinton herself — Gowdy led the way in driving the hearing irretrievably off the rails, creating a public spectacle that even conservative pundits believed was a disaster for the GOP. Gowdy’s Benghazi committee has since become an illustrative example of how a congressional investigation can be bogged down and undermined by excessive partisanship and bad faith.
These are the guys who will be tasked with dragging Nunes’ Russia investigation out of the capacious ditch he drove it into — which is to say that we should not expect the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia inquiry to be healthy or credible any time soon.