Devin Nunes' new "unmasking" scandal exposes the corruption within Bill Barr's DOJ

Barr's Department of Justice tried to force Twitter to unmask a parody Devin Nunes account

By Heather Digby Parton
Published May 19, 2021 9:52AM (EDT)
Bill Bar, Devin Nunes, and Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Bill Bar, Devin Nunes, and Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

I was just wondering the other day whatever happened to Congressman Devin Nunes. During the first two years of the Trump administration, the California Republican was Trump's most loyal henchman, running interference for the White House from within the House Intelligence Committee where as chairman he worked diligently to sabotage any meaningful investigations of the president's curious dealings with Russia during the 2016 campaign. For a time you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing Nunes' doleful, hangdog, visage defending Trump through thick and thin.

Nunes had been a member of the Trump transition and in another era would have had to recuse himself from any of the investigations into Trump and Russia since the transition period was heavily implicated. He did not do that and instead jumped right in and proved himself to be a willing spinner on Trump's behalf, denying that he had any knowledge of calls between Trump's adviser Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. There were indeed calls and they ended Flynn's short tenure as National Security Adviser. It turned out that the White House had requested this allegedly independent committee chairman and others to pooh-pooh the Russia scandal in the media and Nunes, being an eager soldier, did as he was ordered.

But Devin Nunes will likely be remembered for one of the lamest political gambits in history for what's known as his "Midnight Ride."

On March 4th 2017, just a little over a month after Trump took office, he tweeted that Obama had "wire tapped" Trump Tower "just before the victory" and called it McCarthyism. This led to a frenzy among right-wingers to prove that Obama had illegally used the power of the federal government to spy on Trump. The night after Nunes was riding in a car when he got a text message that was so urgent he made the Uber driver stop and he raced over to the White House. He met with a couple of young Trump toadies named Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis, who hysterically informed him that they had found evidence of "unmasking" of Americans' identities intercepted on foreign surveillance calls during the Trump transition. The following morning Nunes held a strange press conference in which he declared "I have confirmed that additional names of Trump Transition Team members were unmasked," and raced to the White House to "brief" the president. Afterward, he held another press conference in front of the White House and told the press that Trump felt "somewhat vindicated" by what he had to say. The press asked him whether he was more bothered by the surveillance or the "unmasking" and he replied that he was especially bothered by the latter. To the question of whether it was appropriate for the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee which was investigating the Russian interference in the 2016 election to rush over to brief the president he said, "the President needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there I have a duty to tell him that."

The thing is, he obviously wasn't telling the White House anything. They had given him the information the night before.

Nunes mumbled incoherently when confronted with his lie the next day saying, "the president didn't invite me over, I called down there and invited myself because I thought he needed to understand what I say and he needed to get that information." Two days later he finally admitted what he did, releasing a statement through his spokesman, but once again declaring his deep concerns about "unmasking" during the Obama administration and insisting that he had been on the trail even before the White House called him over in the middle of the night to show him the evidence.

He eventually recused himself from the investigation without ever really recusing. And it was clear from that point on that nothing the Intelligence Committee did going forward would be kept confidential. Devin Nunes was Trump's man on the inside and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He issued his own highly anticipated "memo" that revealed nothing, called for the impeachment of FBI Director Christopher Wray, flogged the discredited "Uranium One" scandal, railed against the FISA process, and went hard after the Department of Justice, saying at one point, "I hate to use the word 'corrupt,' but they've become at least so dirty that who's watching the watchmen? Who's investigating these people? There is no one."

After the Republicans lost their House majority, Nunes was apparently working on the Rudy Giuliani project to get Ukrainian dirt on Joe Biden. At least that's what Lev Parnas, Giuliani's accomplice currently under indictment, said when it was reported that they had spoken on the phone. And he was suing people who criticized him, from news organizations to watchdog groups and even a fruit farmer who called him a "fake farmer." But his most famous lawsuit was against a satirical Twitter account that called itself "Devin Nunes's Cow" which was, of course, dismissed.

We now know that Nunes's thin-skinned crusade wasn't just his personal folly.

It turns out that he had friends in high places using the full force of the federal government to help him "unmask" another Twitter handle called @NunesAlt another parody account that made fun of the very sensitive congressman. Two weeks after Trump's defeat last November, the New York Times reported this week, the Justice Department got a grand jury subpoena, a unique power that requires no judge to sign off, to demand that Twitter hand over the identity of @NunesAlt. Twitter refused, citing free speech concerns and the fact that despite the government assertion that this person violated federal law by issuing a threat, they could not produce any evidence that they had. The Justice Department under Merrick Garland later withdrew the subpoena.

But this is yet another example of the level of partisan corruption throughout the Trump administration — especially in former Attorney General William Barr's Justice Department.

Barr's last-minute refusal to help Trump overturn the election was nothing more than a last-ditch effort to redeem some small piece of his reputation but he continued to do Trump and his allies' dirty work nonetheless. Trump and his henchmen spent years caterwauling about the alleged "Deep State" conspiring against them for political purposes yet at every turn we found them abusing their power to punish their political opponents. Remember, it was Nunes himself who said of the DOJ, "I hate to use the word 'corrupt,' but they've become at least so dirty that who's watching the watchmen?" I guess he knew what he was talking about for once.  


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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