On the Devin Nunes-ification of the GOP

Nunes isn’t the joke. He’s the punchline.

There may have been a time when Devin Nunes was a serious person. Nunes spent most of his Congressional career — which began in 2003 —clinging closely to former Speaker of the House John Boehner. Nunes was never regarded as exceedingly bright (think Paul Ryan) or politically adept (his seat is in a safe Republican district), but he was fiercely loyal to House leadership. It was that loyalty that got Nunes his position on the House Intelligence Committee, of which he assumed leadership in 2015. Since Donald Trump became president, Nunes has used the Intelligence Committee as a defensive mechanism to aid the Trump Administration. For instance, in March of 2018, the Intelligence Committee completed its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and dubiously came to the conclusion that the Russians did not aid Donald Trump, contradicting the well-established findings of the intelligence community.

While that finding was criticized by some of Nunes’s fellow Republicans, it was welcomed by Nunes’s target audience: President Trump. Pleasing Trump has been Nunes’s guiding light ever since 2016, when he joined the Transition Team and angled for a job in the incoming Administration. However, his penchant for loyalty worked against him in early 2017, when Nunes stumbled his way into the wiretapping “scandal” (which sounds complicated but is mostly centered around an angry Trump Bathroom Tweet™).

This is ancient history now, but the story went like this: On March 4, 2017, Trump tweeted:

This was a hefty accusation at the time, for which there was no available evidence. But, because these were the early days of the Administration and before Trump discovered his ability to admit when he was wrong (just kidding; this has still yet to happen and Trump is 73), the White House scrambled to find some sort of excuse for the tweet. Devin Nunes swept in, claimed that he had spoken to “whistleblowers,” and that they had provided him information that lent some credibility to Trump’s allegation.

The whistleblowers turned out to be two White House aides who had fed the information to Nunes, and the information did not support the President’s allegation. Fast forward to 2019, — where irony has been beaten to death and left to die in an alley — and Nunes is criticizing his counterpart, Congressman Adam Schiff, for not revealing the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint launched the Ukraine Scandal (Nunes has also reportedly leaked the name of the whistleblower to the press).

The key element of this story to remember isn’t Nunes’s bumbling, silly behavior. It’s what happened after that should strike the body politic with sadness: On April 6, 2017, Nunes announced that he was recusing himself from the Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe, which would create a wall between him and the investigation. His actions were too much for the Republican Party to bear and, to save the Intelligence Committee’s credibility, Nunes was forced to step aside. It is incredible how quickly things have changed in less than three years. The Nunes Americans watched on TV during the impeachment hearings wouldn’t think twice about recusing himself from any investigation into Trump, as it would hamper his ability to protect the President.

Nunes is now facing his own troubles: Reports have emerged that he met with the Ukrainian prosecutor ousted by Joe Biden, Viktor Shokin, in an attempt to get dirt on the former Vice President. In addition, Nunes allegedly sent aides to Ukraine to meet with Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani who is now under indictment for campaign finance fraud. The trip — which cost taxpayers around $63,000 — was another attempt to get dirt on Joe Biden. House Democrats have said that an ethics probe of Nunes’s activity is very likely. But his unwavering loyalty to Trump has protected him from even a hint of Republican criticism.

Although Nunes aligned himself with Trump early on and has rarely, if ever, wavered from his inveterate dedication to the President, his recusal in the Wiretapping Scandal harkens back to a time when the Republican Party understood that norms, facts, and wrongdoing actually mattered. Trump’s accusation against Obama was largely criticized by the GOP at the time, mostly because there was nothing to support it. Contrast that behavior with the current GOP insistence — against all evidence — that Trump did not withhold aid to Ukraine in an attempt to strong-arm an investigation into Joe Biden.

On Sunday morning, Senator John Kennedy appeared on Fox News Sunday and repeated a conspiracy theory that also has no evidence to support it: The Ukrainians — not the Russians — interfered in the 2016 election. Senator Kennedy surely knows that his colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee (along with everyone else) concluded that the Russians interfered in the election. But Kennedy wasn’t making this claim on TV for the regular Fox News viewers sitting at home; he was doing it for the Fox News viewer sitting in the White House.

Virtually all of Nunes’s actions can be characterized the same way. Although it’s hard to tell whether or not Nunes actually believes his conspiracy theories (sending an aide to Europe on the taxpayer dime would suggest that he does), belief in what you are saying isn’t required to be a servant to the President. Due to Trump’s obdurate nature, all that is needed is some sort of counter to whatever current reality is upending the Trump Presidency, be it the size of his inauguration crowd or the unlawful “spying” on his campaign during the 2016 election. Trump can take virtually any argument and run with it, dragging subordinates with him all the way to either the finish line or oncoming traffic. There once was a time when the Sean Spicers of the world were roundly mocked, even in GOP circles. But what Spicer showed us early on is that Trump never needs unanimous support: He just needs one. And if that “one” happens to be a United States Congressman, others will follow him.

Nunes has spent the majority of Trump’s presidency offering a counterargument to the Russia Scandal: The FBI and other agencies spied on Donald Trump and launched the Russia Investigation to tarnish his presidency. Nunes’s accusations were repeatedly criticized by experts, but they found ample support in the depths of pro-Trump conservative media. Specifically, The Federalist ran defense for Nunes’s conspiracy theory for years, and made their website the home base (outside of Fox News) for Nunes’s claims. They ran head-first into a brick wall on Friday, when reports began surfacing that — as experts predicted — the investigation tasked with overseeing the origins of the Russia Inquiry will confirm that it had a firm legal foundation. The Federalist’s co-founder, Sean Davis, did not take this news well.

Fun fact: The investigation in to the IRS scandal also found no wrongdoing.

The Federalist was at one time considered a credible website of intelligent conservative thought. Even liberal websites praised its content, with (the now defunct) ThinkProgress giving it an award for the “best new conservative website.” It launched in 2013 and offered well-researched essays on the tenants of conservatism along side sharp criticism of the Obama Administration. Given the bizarre criticisms coming from the fever swamps of the Right suggesting that Obama was a Muslim double-agent, The Federalist was a welcomed addition to the public discourse.

Now, however, it has firmly planted its roots in that fever swamp. There was a time when you could expect to read poignant criticism of Sean Hannity at The Federalist; now their writers and Hannity have the same talking points. The Federalist might be a unique case: They are notoriously defensive about who funds their website, which has little to no advertising. They dismiss the question, “Who funds The Federalist?” as an attempt to stifle debate, but it’s at least partially relevant given the fact that one of their co-founders is a plagiarist who was paid to write flattering articles about Malaysia. Still, the website’s reliance on donor money to keep the lights on demonstrates a fundamental problem with today’s GOP: They are ultimately subservient to the person who pays them. Trump may not be paying off the Republicans with actual money, but he can do so with another type of currency. The base of the Republican Party remains firmly aligned with Trump and seems inexpicably eager to bend to his will. Vulnerable Senators and members of Congress live in abject fear of a critical Trump tweet.

Lindsey Graham is perhaps the best example of Trump’s unique leverage: He was a Senator who previously called Trump a xenophobe and a racist, but now abandons long-held principles to avoid taking a stand against Trump. Graham was actually one of the Republican Senators who criticized Nunes’s role in the wiretapping stunt. He said Nunes’s “Inspector Clouseau investigation” had ruined his credibility. Contrast that with the Graham we are familiar with today: He has openly entertained calling Rudy Giuliani before the Senate Judiciary Committee to offer a Pro-Trump defense of the Ukraine Scandal (Giuliani is currently under criminal investigation by prosecutors for his role in the scheme). It only took a year of Trumpism to break the will of Lindsey Graham’s dignity.

Many Republicans on the margins (they exhibit a strong dislike of Trump but generally support the Party) readily characterize politicians like Nunes and Graham as clowns who are not representative of the GOP as a whole. But Nunes, Kennedy, and Graham are not quiet representatives from obscure regions of the country; they are leaders of the Party. The Federalist is a widely read website in conservative circles, and their writers appear regularly on Fox News.

Former Ambassador Nikki Haley used to lob fair criticisms at the Trump Administration, sometimes even from her official Administration Twitter account. She has now reversed course and offered her support of the President, even to the point of embarrassingly suggesting that Trump does not lie.

There is speculation that Haley’s actions are her merely angling for a potential Vice Presidential spot on the 2020 ticket. Other commentators have hinted that Trump must have some sort of blackmail on all the Republicans who have had a change of heart (this is especially true with Graham). None of this is true. What every Trump Convert™ has done — from The Federalist to Graham to Haley to Senator Cory Gardner — is not a result of blackmail or a newfound sense of Party loyalty: They have simply made a bet. It’s a bet that Nunes made early on: Trumpism is the future of the GOP. What’s worse, it can’t be an exceedingly risky bet, otherwise politicians — who do a Pascal’s Wager on whether or not to vote for a bill authorizing the release Tupac Shakur’s private records — wouldn’t take it. Elise Stefanik, a Republican Congresswoman from New York considered to be the “future” of the GOP, used to be “Trump reluctant.” She and Nunes recently engaged in what can only be described as a stunt to appease Fox News viewers tuned into the impeachment hearings (it worked). Stefanik was previously seen as the tightrope upon which the GOP believed it could walk: Critical of Trump, but supportive of the GOP. She has evidently gone all in on Trumpism.

Trumpism isn’t an ideology, per se; it is solely the defense of one man, done at the sacrifice of credibility, principle, and loyalty to country. The GOP formerly had ideals that they spent most of the 20th Century defending. They supported foreign allies, like the Kurds; they opposed government interference in the private market, like subsidies for farmers; they supported free trade; they welcomed immigrants; and they did not abuse or target the free press. The GOP’s dedication to these ideas isn’t ancient history; it’s the GOP of 2015.

Presumably, there are still some members of the Party — perhaps even in the Senate — who do still believe in these ideas. But, in a few weeks, reality is going to stare Senators in the face and ask them to square these principles with the incontrovertible truth: Donald Trump abused the power of his office to extort and bribe a foreign government for the purpose of interfering in our elections. The current bet is that the overwhelming majority of Senators will absolve the President of his guilt, and it is currently sure-fire.

The calculation of the bet isn’t centered around the President’s guilt or innocence. It revolves around one question: What can Trumpism do for me? Every Republican vote to absolve the President in the Senate should not be viewed as a declaration that he is “not guilty.” Instead, the votes should be viewed for what they really are: A bet. They are a bet that the future of the GOP is one that will have to involve Trump and that he isn’t going away. Republican Senators will have to choose if they are ready to go back to the time when a recusal was the honorable thing to do, or if the future of the GOP is the worship and defense of one man.

There may have been a time when the GOP was a serious Party. But it’s Trump’s Party now.

I write for a legal newspaper. I suck without an editor.

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