Representative Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), the now-controversial chair of the House Intelligence Committee, is a bit different from what Washington expects in its politicians.
He grew up in the agricultural cornucopia of the Central Valley of California — fruits, vegetables, beef, dairy products, and fibers — the concrete expression of a myriad of hard-working ethnic groups. Their diverse ancestors fled poverty and occasional horrors in Armenia, Basque Country, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, the Punjab, Southeast Asia, and the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
Central to this mix of immigrants, farmers, and ranchers is a valley culture of pragmatism, bluntness, and tenacity.
Of all these groups, none are more unabashedly patriotic and outspoken than Portuguese-immigrant dairy farmers, most from the islands of the Azores.
I live in rural Fresno County at the juncture of three congressional districts. All three are currently represented by Portuguese-Americans from farming families and from both parties: Nunes (22nd district); my own representative, David Valadao (R., 21st district); and Representative Jim Costa (D., 16th district). All three keep getting re-elected for their accessibility, informality, and commitment to the traditional values of their districts.
Nunes became a controversial public figure nationally when he revealed that the surveillance of foreign governments by American intelligence agencies may have resulted in the inappropriate monitoring of members of the Trump transition team — and perhaps some private citizens, too — and the unmasking of their identities.
What followed this disclosure could have mirror-imaged the script of director Frank Capra’s classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
It all started when Nunes said he had received unsolicited information of wrongdoing from one or more whistleblowers. Unfortunately for Nunes, he approached complaints of improper surveillance in a Central Valley sort of way (but a most un-Washington manner).
Instead of the usual pattern of leaking the whistleblower’s information to friendly media (and, of course, denying that he was the source of the leaks), Nunes went ballistic — and, heaven forbid, public.
Nunes first notified House speaker Paul Ryan of his intention to bring the information to both the president and the public. Nunes then held a press conference to reveal the potentially inappropriate monitoring, then told the president himself that some of his associates may have been swept up in potentially improper surveillance and leaking conducted by bureaus that fall under the executive branch. Nunes also served subpoenas to the NSA, CIA, and FBI.
The result? Suddenly, Nunes himself became the object of Washington vituperation for not immediately informing House Democrats about the potentially inappropriate monitoring.
Nunes was targeted by progressive activists and investigated by the House Ethics Committee — which has thus far not released any findings of improper behavior — apparently because he went public and is now viewed as a partisan of Trump.
Nunes next announced that he was temporarily delegating his leadership of the House Intelligence Committee as it investigated charges of collusion between the Trump administration and Russia. In melodramatic fashion, Nunes was said to have “recused” himself from all committee leadership. But he really did not.
“Recusal” is a legal term that denotes disqualifying oneself due to conflict of interest. Instead, Nunes only took a temporary respite from leading a single investigatory thread of supposed Trump-Russian collusion. Was that a de facto dare for the committee to investigate what Nunes supposedly had blocked?
The House Intelligence Committee has not interviewed a single witness for more than two months. Is that laxity because the committee so far has been unable to find concrete evidence of Trump-Russia collusion? While some other members of the near-dormant House Intelligence Committee apparently have continued to leak information about the possible prospect of grand-jury investigations of Trump and of forthcoming information about collusion with Russia, none of these stories has been accompanied by supporting evidence.
It seems that the explosive unmasking charges are at last being seriously investigated.
Now, Nunes is back again, courting media outrage by pressing to subpoena three Obama administration officials — former national security adviser Susan Rice, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, and former CIA director John Brennan — to explain whether they played a role in the improper monitoring of American citizens and the leaking of their names to the press.
But strangely, this time around, the media has been relatively subdued. Perhaps it’s because the Russian collusion story went nowhere when Nunes temporarily assigned his investigatory leadership to others.
Yet it seems that the explosive unmasking charges are at last being seriously investigated.
The mainstream media has caricatured Nunes’s bulldog bluntness in going public as naive and partisan, and they have predicted his demise as a committee chairman amid a climate of hysteria.
Instead, Nunes seems unconcerned and plows straight ahead — in the fashion of dairy farmers from the Central Valley of California.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books. You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2017 Tribune Media Services, Inc.