Devin Nunes was ‘in like Flynn’ with the Trump Campaign from the beginning
The House Intel Chairman was closely allied with General Michael Flynn during his tumultuous tenure at the DIA; In spring 2016, Nunes began providing private intelligence briefings to the campaign, and after Trump secured the nomination, he traveled with and fundraised for the candidate. Limiting his role to that of “Transition Team member” has allowed major conflicts-of-interest to go unchallenged.
In the early months of the 2016 presidential campaign, California Congressman Devin Nunes had taken to repeating a singular talking point anytime he was questioned about his endorsement. Consistently, Nunes would state he only planned on “supporting the Republican nominee out of the convention.” Nunes was referred to as a “no-namer” — the category of GOP lawmakers who would not name Trump directly, but who were nonetheless committed to supporting him if and when he won the nomination. As the head of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes’ apparent objectivity was appropriate. He explained that “as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee he stays neutral because he has to brief the nominees.”
An examination of open source information, however, reveals that Nunes’ involvement with the Trump Campaign was far more extensive than has been purported. In fact, Nunes had an already established, years-long relationship with Trump’s National Security Advisor — Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. He likely played an integral role in providing behind-the-scenes national security guidance to a fledgling campaign otherwise lacking in such expertise. And once Trump emerged as the party’s nominee in July 2016, Nunes’ support of Trump became absolute. In the lead up to election day, Nunes fundraised for Trump, defended him in the media, downplayed Russian interference, and secured himself an influential position on the Transition Team.
Presently, Nunes serves as the lead House Republican responsible for investigating the Trump campaign’s conspiracy with Russian actors to influence the election. Yet universally, U.S. media perpetuates a revisionist version of history, limiting Nunes’ role to merely that of a post-election “Transition Team member”. This misrepresentation has allowed Nunes to skate free on clear ethics violations and continue to serve in a role for which his conflicts-of-interest are considerable.
Allies in arms
In 2011, California Congressman Devin Nunes was selected for a much-coveted seat on the powerful House Intelligence Committee. At 40 years old, Nunes brought little more with him than a few years of farming experience and a decade serving his rural constituency in congress. He had earned a reputation, however, as an effective fundraiser for his GOP colleagues and a reliable party vote for then Speaker of the House John Boehner. As a reward for these efforts, Nunes became one of twenty-one House members responsible for overseeing a swath of seventeen agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community.
It was in this capacity as a committee member that Nunes first met and came to develop an alliance with Lt. Gen Michael Flynn — appointed director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in July 2012. Nunes himself said after the 2016 election he had:
“‘Known Flynn for a long time and had been briefed by him dozens of time,’ describing him further as ‘one of the best and most knowledgeable generals’ he had seen during his career in Congress.”
General Flynn’s tumultuous two-year tenure at DIA has by now been well-documented. It was a period defined by Flynn’s chaotic management style and his persistent conflict with other U. S. intelligence agencies. Having served previously as a top intelligence adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, Flynn brought with him to DIA entrenched beliefs about the ongoing serious threat posed by Islamist terror groups in the Middle East. Once inside the administration, it became quickly evident to Flynn that President Obama did not share in this assessment. In Flynn’s view, Obama was looking for the intelligence community to comport their findings to align with his administration’s narrative of a post-bin Laden era of rapidly declining terror threats. In Flynn’s words, it was Obama’s “big lie”.
From contemporaneous reporting of this same 2012–2014 period, Nunes was clearly allied with Flynn on these grounds. As a member of the intelligence committee, Nunes was separately investigating the administration for the September 2012 Benghazi attack that left four American officials dead. The attack had come on the heels of a then-confidential draft National Intelligence Estimate produced by the Obama Administration that concluded al Qaeda was no longer a direct threat to America.
Flynn fought hard against this assessment, setting the stage for what would become a sustained confrontation between the administration, certain senior intelligence officials, and GOP members of the congressional committee appointed to oversee them.
Part of the acrimony was related to the administration’s handling of documents seized during the 2011 raid of Osama bin Laden’s lair. Believing they possessed critical intelligence of the sustained threat posed by Al Qaeda, Flynn lobbied alongside Nunes and others for the documents to be declassified. Nunes later revealed that “informants came to me in late 2012 stating that they had information related to the bin Laden raid and the analysis of intelligence.” According to Nunes and others, the documents where both alarming and in direct contradiction to Obama administration claims of al Qaeda’s waning influence. Flynn was allegedly told directly to stop producing reports based on these documents.
More serious allegations were also levied by Flynn, Nunes, and others. Senior intelligence officials had begun to accuse U.S. Central Command of manipulating ISIS intelligence to “portray the campaign as more successful than it really was.” Flynn was later quoted as saying that intelligence reports were “disregarded” by Obama if they “did not meet a particular narrative that the White House needed” for Obama’s re-election.
In May 2013, Nunes traveled to CENTCOM Headquarters in Tampa for a briefing by analysts involved in the push back against these allegedly manipulated reports. The topics were slated to include “Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda, bin Laden’s involvement in the day-to-day operations of al Qaeda, and his operations guidance to offshoots, such as Boko Haram.” Once in Tampa, Nunes was denied access to the analysts and their findings, creating further schisms between the parties.
Flynn’s ultimate undoing came in 2014, after a February presentation of the DIA’s “annual threat assessment” to congress. The report predicted the Islamic State would probably “attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.” The forecast, while ultimately proved to be true, clashed with Obama’s description a month earlier of ISIS as “a jayvee team.” In March, Flynn then gave an interview to NPR, further deriding the administration for its failure to heed DIA’s warnings over Russia’s preparations to invade Ukraine. By April, Flynn had been asked to step down as director of the agency.
But based on repeated allegations of intelligence manipulation by some senior officials, the Pentagon’s Inspector General did open an investigation in the summer of 2014. Nunes continued to press the government to declassify bin Laden documents, going so far as to require the document release in committee bills to authorize spending for the agencies. And later in 2015, a House Republican task force report — written by members of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees — concluded that intelligence on the ISIS threat was systematically altered by senior U.S. Central Command officials to put it in a more positive light.
A campaign trail reunion
By June 2015, the ex-DIA director was routinely appearing on television voicing increasingly vitriolic criticisms of the Obama administration — a characteristic that undoubtedly endeared him to then-candidate Trump. By late 2015 Flynn had officially joined the Trump campaign as the novice politician’s national security advisor. Given the storied history between Nunes and Flynn, it’s not surprising the two men would eventually reunite during the 2016 election season and rally in support of the same “tough on terrorism” Republican candidate.
Nunes, by now Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was projecting a public appearance of neutrality in the Republican primaries. Yet according to post-election reports from Politico and McClatchy, by spring 2016 Nunes had already begun meeting with members of the Trump team and providing them private national security briefings. As Politico described it:
“Early this year, (Nunes) made a standing offer to brief any of the Republican presidential hopefuls on national security issues. Trump’s campaign took him up on it in March. From those meetings, Nunes grew close with retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.”
In late May 2016, Trump scheduled a campaign rally in Fresno, a central California city next to Nunes’ home district. The appearance was a rarity for Republican presidential candidates, who stand essentially no chance of winning the solidly blue state. According to CNN, a leading player behind the scenes of the event was Nunes’ former Chief of Staff Johnny Amaral, who “(managed) lobbyists for Westlands Water District, a massive water district in the Central Valley.” While it is unconfirmed whether Nunes attended Trump’s pre-rally town meetings or the event itself, he claimed later in June that he was “looking forward to meeting Donald Trump (at the convention) to discuss California water, tax reform and intelligence issues.”
After the Republican National Convention, Nunes’ outward support for Trump became more apparent. According to his hometown paper Fresno Bee, in August 2016 Nunes arranged a fundraiser for Trump in his local district of Tulare. The Bee reported that the cost to attend the event was $2,700, with a $25,000 opportunity for a VIP meeting. Nunes “expected Trump to raise at least $1.25 million and possibly as much as $1.5 million.” He also planned to travel to the Bay Area to brief Trump on water and prepare him for the event. “‘He’s already been here once, so I think he has a decent handle on it,’ said Nunes, who will also brief Trump on intelligence issues,” the paper reported.
In a follow-up report, Fresno Bee provided further details on Nunes’ Bay area trip to brief Trump. According to that report, “Nunes ended up getting prime time with the Republican nominee, though he did not plan on it….Trump invited him to come along on his jet flight to Los Angeles, where he spent Monday night.” McClatchy went further, reporting “in August, the two men spent more time together in Trump’s plane and at fundraising and campaign events in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Tulare County.”
Later in October, after the Access Hollywood tape leaked, a third report from Fresno Bee showed that Nunes’ support remained firm. In a text message to the paper, Nunes said “‘As you know, I stayed out of the primary (election campaign) and as a party leader agreed to support and help whoever won…That remains my commitment, to help make our candidate the best that he can be on (intelligence) and military issues.’”
Evolving views on Russian interference
Nunes’ outward support for candidate Trump was not the only thing to evolve during the 2016 campaign. So too did his views on Russia and his confidence in the intelligence communities assessment of Russian interference. In a CNN interview in April 2016, Nunes told Jake Tapper that the U.S. government has badly “misjudged” the intentions of Putin “for many, many years,” declaring “the biggest intelligence failure that we have had since 9/11 has been the inability to predict the leadership plans and intentions of the Putin regime in Russia.” On the invasion of Ukraine, Nunes added “We missed that..and then we completely missed entirely when they put a new base, a new base with aircraft into the Mediterranean, into Syria. We just missed it. We were blind.”
By July, as the extent of Russian hacking was becoming better known, Nunes conceded there was “a high confidence” Russia hacked into the DNC computers. Still, his stance on the threat posed by Russia had noticeably softened. He insisted many other foreign countries were doing the same thing and that the release of material during a U.S. election was “nothing new”. Nunes further denied there was evidence that Russian hackers gave the information to WikiLeaks, even as he acknowledged they had operated as a conduit for Russia in the past. And in regard to Trump’s call on Russia to find the “missing 33,000 emails”, Nunes brushed off concerns, say Trump “was simply making light of Hillary Clinton setting up her own homebrew email server that trafficked in classified information.”
After Trump won the election in November 2016, Nunes denials of Russian interference only grew, putting him at direct odds once again with the intelligence community he was sworn to oversee.
Transition period influence
The overwhelming majority of media reports since the election have focused on Nunes’ role as a Trump Transition Team member, effectively erasing his involvement in the very campaign he is investigating. Clearly, however, Nunes role and relationships with key subjects of the investigation are substantial.
It is likely for this reason that Nunes wielded such significant influence as a Transition Team member. According to various reports, it was Nunes’ recommendations that formed the basis for Trump’s selections of both General James Mattis (who he knew from his days investigating U.S. Central Command) as Defense Secretary and fellow Intel committee member Mike Pompeo for CIA Director. Like Nunes, Pompeo had a history of criticism towards the intelligence community and had also been dismissive of Russian election interference, claiming that 2016 was no different than any other election year.
Nunes freely admitted that as a Transition Team member, he was responsible for fielding calls from foreign leaders and ambassadors who were trying to reach Flynn. He strenuously defended Trump in the media when it was leaked that the President-elect was skipping intelligence briefings. And, he now-infamously attended a pre-inauguration breakfast with Turkish officials as a guest of Flynn’s. The public later learned the General was being paid to represent the interests of these government officials.
Because he has never been questioned as a witness, it is unknown what, if any, knowledge Nunes had of Flynn’s arrangement with the Turkish government or the campaign’s contacts with Russia during the election.
Duty and obligation
With this context, the bizarre actions by Nunes over the past year come sharply into focus. When Flynn was fired from his White House position after conversations with the Russian Ambassador leaked in February 2017, it was Nunes that the White House tapped to defend the General in the media — which he dutifully did. And when Trump levied unsubstantiated claims of wiretapping by the Obama administration, it was Nunes that conspired with Flynn’s National Security Council appointees to create the diversionary “unmasking scandal.”
Now, almost a year into the House Intelligence investigation, Nunes is set to release an “intelligence memo” with its target set directly on the FBI, DOJ, and intelligence community. It’s long past time to set the record straight about Nunes and the central role he played in the very campaign he is charged with investigating.