Let’s begin with two assertions, both of which should be inarguable. First, no one in Washington is entitled to any position of power or responsibility. Second, the greater the power or responsibility, the more integrity, character, and — crucially — competence we should expect from our public officials. Or, to put it plainly, to whom much is given, much is required.
By that standard, why is Devin Nunes still chairman of the House Intelligence Committee?
Let’s backtrack and briefly review the utterly bizarre events of the last month. Let’s start with this tweet, from President Trump:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
While there had long been reports that the intelligence community had intercepted communications between Russian officials and members of the Trump team, this tweet raised the stakes. Previously, it was understood that the intelligence community had been monitoring Russians, and it picked up communications with Trump officials only when they communicated with Russians already under surveillance. Trump’s tweets, by contrast, indicated that he’d discovered that Obama personally ordered surveillance of the incoming GOP president.
To call that claim “explosive” is an understatement. Indeed, Trump himself understood the stakes and tweeted this:
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
There was just one problem: Trump made the claim without providing any evidence to support it. Indeed, as FBI director James Comey pointed out, the president doesn’t even possess the legal authority to unilaterally order wiretaps on American citizens. Yet that didn’t stop the now-familiar partisan Republican scramble to find something, anything that could make Trump’s tweet look “truthy” or perhaps “truthish.”
Enter Devin Nunes. After first saying that he believed Trump’s tweeted allegations were “wrong” on March 22, he conducted a short press conference on White House grounds to declare that he’d obtained documents indicating that White House officials (and maybe even the president) had been monitored as part of relatively routine surveillance of foreign officials.
Oddly, however, he’d apparently rushed to the White House to present this evidence without sharing it with members of his own committee. This was a breach of protocol, but not on its face a firing offense. Nunes apologized, and the storm seemed set to pass.
Then the story got stranger still. Yesterday Nunes acknowledged that he traveled to the White House before his March 22 press conference to review secret documents in the White House’s possession, then used the contents of those documents to “brief” the president and the press. In other words, the White House appeared to be using Nunes to brief itself. Rather than state its own case with its own evidence, it used Nunes to make it appear as if external investigation had at least partially validated Trump’s tweets.
Just at the time when the nation desperately needs adults to step forward who can give the public confidence that they not only understand the stakes of the Russia investigation, they also can be entrusted to conduct that investigation in good faith, Nunes unnecessarily poured gasoline on an already-raging fire. The American body politic is awash in conspiracy theories, mistrust, and wild claims of espionage and criminality. It needs leaders. It needs competence. It needs integrity.
Nunes isn’t Donald Trump’s lawyer. He’s not Trump’s spokesperson. It’s not his job to clean up Trump’s Twitter mess. The House Intelligence Committee faces the challenge of conducting an investigation that has at least some degree of bipartisan credibility. It’s not “success” for Nunes to produce a report that plays great on Fox News while his Democratic counterpart, Adam Schiff, writes a dissenting document for Rachel Maddow.
Are you unconvinced? Let’s indulge in the simplest exercise in political integrity. If the roles were reversed, what would you argue? If Adam Schiff was the chairman, Hillary Clinton was president, and Schiff was secretly meeting at the White House for solo briefings then presenting that same “evidence” to the press as if he’d discovered it, you’d want him to step down. And you’d be right.
Months into the Russia controversy, we still don’t know if there was any collusion at all between Russian officials and members of Trump’s team. We still don’t know the full extent of Russian efforts to have an impact on the election. And we still don’t know the identities of government officials who seem to be leaking classified information to any reporter who will listen. But we do know that partisans on both sides are utterly shameless in their double standards. Leaks are terrible if the information is damaging for their side, and they’re vital to democracy if the information is good. The Clinton Foundation’s ties to Russia are overblown, but Trump’s the Manchurian Candidate. Or, if you’re a Republican, Hillary Clinton sold out American national security, and Trump is the victim of a witch hunt. Public discourse is becoming a sad joke.
If Nunes steps down as chairman, he can quickly transition from part of the problem to part of the solution. He can make a powerful statement that mistakes have consequences, and public officials still have the integrity to acknowledge their own shortcomings. He can clear the way for an investigation untainted by his own errors. His own power and his own position are not worth the ongoing loss in public confidence. It’s time for Nunes to go.