One of Donald Trump’s most reliable Congressional errand boys got an official whitewash today from the House Ethics Committee, with a little help from his friends.
The committee ruled in an investigation that began last April that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) did not break the law when he revealed classified information at a press conference staged by the White House to help Trump prove he’d been wiretapped by President Obama.
Nunes is the water boy who went to the White House to discuss highly classified intelligence data with President Trump that showed there had been covert surveillance by the U.S. government at Trump Tower during the period the president was living there.
The House Ethics Committee has cleared House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes in its investigation into whether he disclosed classified information to the Trump White House https://t.co/lUCsblv0Jr pic.twitter.com/HG9Ry4Vjrz
— CNN (@CNN) December 8, 2017
Here is the sequence of events. First, on a Tuesday evening last March, Nunes went to the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where he met with two White House aides who gave him the secret infomation about the wiretaps. He said he needed a secure place to look at it, even though he has his own secure rooms at the Capitol.
On Wednesday, Nunes had a press conference where he let it leak out – per his efforts to defend Trump – that there had been intelligence intercepts at Trump Tower, just as Trump had tweeted, which he suggested may have occurred in an attempt to tap into aides and staff around Trump.
Nunes then went back to the White House to brief Trump about what he now knew. And no doubt to get a Trumpian version of a pat on his head and a gold star.
What Nunes forgot to do was tell the other members of the Intelligence Committee first, which caused a firestorm of complaints and accusations that he violated his duty as committee chairman to remain impartial. He apologized to the committee on Thursday for taking it to Trump first, but Democrats remained infuriated.
Later the same day, a Trump spokesman conceded that there was no evidence that anyone in the Trump camp had been wiretapped, claiming that it might just have been tenants in the building.
What Nunes had not mentioned at his press conference was that the “intelligence” was that there were calls from people speaking a foreign language to people living in the Trump Tower who spoke in a foreign language and that sometime during the call, the name Trump did come up.
As exhaustive further investigations showed, there was no targeting of Trump’s communications or a tap on his phone lines, and especially no attempt to steal information during his campaign, as he had suggested when he tweeted suggesting that this was bigger than Watergate.
A number of non-profits and advocacy groups – what Nunes dismissed as “left-wing activists” – including MoveOn.org and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the OCE to investigate whether the news that there was “incidental” surveillance around Trump Tower violated the law against revealing top secret data.
“The disclosure of this information by Chairman Nunes was evidently intended to try to lend some credence to President Trump’s claims that former President Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped – claims that have been repeatedly shown to be absolutely baseless, as confirmed by FBI Director James Comey in his testimony before Nunes own committee,” wrote MoveOn.org in its statement.
Nunes is Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, the same group that was charged with investigating Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and whether the Trump campaign had any role in that illegal operation.
One good thing came out of the ethics complaint. Nunes had to agree to step aside for the Russia-Trump investigation and let another Republican take over as chair of those hearings.
There was a time as recently as last year that a complaint filed with the OCE, even anonymously, would have meant something.
Since it was created in 2008 when three corrupt Congressmen were sent to jail, it has been at the forefront of a number of independent investigations into allegations that House members broke rules or the law.
That all changed on the first night that the new Congress convened, with Republican controlling both the House and the Senate, as well as the White House.
With no warning to Democrats or the press, the Republicans on the Ethics Committee, which had a tenuous oversight of the OCE (after it investigated, they got to decide if there would be a full hearing, similar to a trial), changed all the rules.
One of the first acts of the new Congress was to yank the teeth out of the OCE, so that now, instead of an independent investigation, the politically motivated politicians on the Ethics Committee can call all the shots.
The OCE, under the old rules, was required to issue a report after each investigation, which made public findings that were often embarrassing or troubling for the member who had been accused of wrongdoing – whether the Ethics Committee acted or not.
Under the new rules, there would be no more press releases unless the Ethics Committee chose to release them at some point.
“The House Republicans’ move would take away both power and independence from an investigative body,” reported the New York Times on January 3, “and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries.”
“This is huge,” Bryson Morgan, who had been an investigative lawyer for the old OCE from 2013 until 2015 told the NY Times last January. “It effectively allows the committee to shut down any independent investigation into member misconduct. Historically, the ethics committee had failed to investigate member misconduct.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House Minority Leader, was outraged that there was no advance warning and that “the House G.O.P. has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions.”
“Evidently,” added Pelosi last January, “ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
Now, the new rules have helped Trump and his Republican cohorts pretend that Nunes never broke the law by releasing top secret information (and for political purposes), or that he danced over to the White House to share his news with Trump, but forgot to mention it first to the other members of the Intelligence Committee.
It also clears the way for Nunes to retake his chairman’s seat for the investigation into Russian interference in the election, as well as the Trump campaign’s role. It’s hard to guess how Nunes will run the show and what witnesses he will allow, all to give his master at the White House his own whitewash.
Nunes will undoubtedly receive additional thanks from the president who oversees an administration that values loyalty over honesty.
So when you see the headline, “Nunes Cleared,” remember how much smoke had to be blown away by a gang of shady Republican lawmakers to please the White House and keep their fellow traveler from being rebuked.
NEW: House Ethics Committee clears Rep. Devin Nunes of charge that he mishandled classified information. pic.twitter.com/H7mawdWmKx
— NBC News (@NBCNews) December 7, 2017