Beyond President Trump, Washington’s dominant liberal establishment dislikes no one more than Rep. Devin Nunes.
The California Republican last year broke from the town’s incessant Trump-Russia collusion storyline. He steered his House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence down a new road: how Barack Obama political appointees targeted the Trump campaign, relying on a Democrat-funded dossier that many conservatives view as a hoax.
Democrats and their media allies protested. MSNBC’s John Heilemann said in January that Mr. Nunes was an agent for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Liberal news websites posted unflattering profiles, such as a New York Times Magazine article in April that said the congressman “displayed a deep mistrust of the expert consensus on reality.”
MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell celebrated the Democrats’ recent takeover of the House, and thus Mr. Nunes‘ removal as chairman in January, by calling him a “clown.”
But conservatives view him quite differently. To them, Mr. Nunes is the one House chairman courageous enough early on to take on and expose President Obama’s FBI hierarchy and the Democrats.
By August 2017, he was issuing subpoenas and using the Fox News bully pulpit to pry away documents and testimony that revealed a partisan FBI embracing an unconfirmed dossier.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, grassroots activists greeted Mr. Nunes like a rock star. Without him, no one likely would have ever known a number of FBI anti-Trump secrets, they said.
“Nunes‘ chairmanship was remarkable,” said Tom Fitton, who heads the conservative Judicial Watch, which has peppered the Justice Department with lawsuits to force disclosures on what it considers FBI misdeeds.
“Typically, congressional committees are hijacked by the agencies they purport to oversee,” Mr. Fitton told The Washington Times. “But Chairman Nunes refused to back down and took on the powerful intelligence community that was politicized and corrupted in an effort to destroy the Trump candidacy and then his presidency.”
Among Mr. Nunes‘ disclosures and, thus, his legacy:
⦁ The 35-page anti-Trump dossier — written by former British spy Christopher Steele whose allegations were freely repeated by Democrats — wasn’t an intelligence report. For months, no one knew for sure who had ordered it. Mr. Nunes found out. It was funded as opposition research by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party. Their agent, Fusion GPS, fed its information to a who’s who of Washington’s influential news bureaus.
⦁ The FBI cited the dossier as its main piece of evidence to persuade a judge to sign a year’s worth of surveillance warrants on Carter Page, a Trump campaign volunteer. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) judges are supposed to require confirmed evidence.
⦁ In its wiretap application, the FBI cited a story in Yahoo News as independent corroboration of the dossier. But as the Yahoo News writer later said, his story had come from Mr. Steele, as did the dossier.
⦁ Mr. Steele lied to the FBI by saying he hadn’t spoken with reporters. When it became obvious that a Mother Jones magazine article on election eve was sourced to him, the FBI fired the former British intelligence officer.
⦁ Mr. Steele continued to feed anti-Trump information to FBI agent Peter Strzok, who led the Trump investigation in 2016 and 2017, by going through middleman Bruce Ohr, the associate deputy attorney general of the Justice Department. Mr. Ohr’s wife worked for Fusion GPS as a Russia researcher investigating Mr. Trump.
⦁ Mr. Steele told Mr. Ohr that he was “desperate” to destroy Mr. Trump.
⦁ Through the threat of more subpoenas, Mr. Nunes forced the Justice Department to release Mr. Strzok’s text messages. Mr. Strzok expressed a deep dislike for Mr. Trump and promised to “stop” him.
⦁ The FBI planned to pay Mr. Steele thousands of dollars to continue investigating Mr. Trump into the transition and possibly the presidency, meaning the bureau would be backing a Democratic Party-paid operative.
⦁ After more than a year of gumshoeing Mr. Steele’s dossier, federal agents didn’t confirm any of his core election collusion charges. Mr. Steele peddled conspiracy stories about Mr. Trump, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Mr. Page and then-Trump attorney Michael Cohen, as well as a smattering of rich Russians. None has been charged with collusion by special counsel Robert Mueller.
⦁ Daniel Jones, a former senior intelligence staffer for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, amassed a huge operations fund of $50 million from rich donors last year to continue to investigate Mr. Trump. Among his hires: Fusion GPS and Mr. Steele.
⦁ James R. Clapper, Mr. Obama’s top intelligence officer, was talking to CNN confidentially postelection. The conversations came at the same time the network was reporting that then-FBI Director James B. Comey briefed President-elect Trump on the dossier’s salacious, unverified part that said he cavorted with prostitutes in Moscow. Mr. Trump has denied this. Mr. Clapper’s spokesman denied to The Washington Times that he leaked the briefing. Mr. Comey didn’t tell Mr. Trump that the report was Democratic opposition research. Mr. Clapper was hired by CNN.
⦁ The Obama White House “unmasked” a large number of Americans picked up in foreign communication intercepts. The names were censored, but Obama aides asked the intelligence community for the names.
The Schiff shift
“Thanks to Chairman Nunes‘ work, the American people know that a political party turned the government’s counterintelligence apparatus against the opposing political party during an election, which most people assumed only happened in banana republics,” said Jack Langer, Mr. Nunes‘ spokesman.
Two main events spurred Mr. Nunes to break off from a Trump-Russia probe and begin what became known as the “FISA abuse” investigation.
First, the CIA changed its assessment of why Mr. Putin interfered in the 2016 election via hacking Democratic Party computers and stealing and publishing emails. The intelligence community had said via leaks that the motive was to sow chaos. But after Mr. Trump defeated Mrs. Clinton, the assessment shifted: Mr. Putin did it to help Mr. Trump win.
Then there was the leak of retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s December 2016 telephone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Republicans believe Obama people were leaking highly sensitive, top-secret intelligence as a way of damaging the incoming Trump administration. Flynn resigned as national security adviser and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the phone calls.
“The leak itself, and the large number of anonymous intelligence sources confirming it to the press, was another very major occurrence that raised the chairman’s suspicion that something untoward was happening and needed to be investigated,” Mr. Langer said.
The clincher was the dossier. Once the BuzzFeed news website posted the entire document as Mr. Trump was about to take office, Mr. Nunes and others finally got the chance to read specific allegations.
“From the beginning, it looked to the chairman like an absurdity,” Mr. Langer said. “For us, it just defied belief.”
Thus began a stream of more than two dozen subpoenas to try to find out more, such as who had paid Mr. Steele to produce the dossier.
Exercising his unilateral subpoena power, Mr. Nunes signed subpoenas for the Justice Department to fess up about its relationship with Mr. Steele. Then came subpoenas for Fusion GPS’ bank records. That brought an admission from Democrats that the $160,000 paid to Mr. Steele had come from the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee.
Mr. Nunes‘ subpoena signings are over for now. Once he passes the gavel to Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, other inquires will begin.
Mr. Schiff championed the dossier and its author, Mr. Steele, and opposed all of Mr. Nunes‘ inquiries. He read Mr. Steele’s unsubstantiated charges into the record at the committee’s first open hearing in March 2017.
Mr. Schiff, who exerts strong influence over how the liberal media covers Trump-Russia, said he wants to find out whether Moscow laundered money in the U.S. through the Trump Organization, the president’s construction business.
After more than two years of FBI investigation, no public evidence has surfaced of any Trump-Russia money-laundering.
It appears that at some level Mr. Schiff also will restart the investigation into election collusion, which the Republican majority intelligence report concluded didn’t happen.
As he prepares to become the intelligence committee’s ranking Republican, Mr. Nunes, 45, is urging Mr. Trump to tidy up some lingering FISA abuse issues. Mr. Nunes wants an additional 20 pages declassified from the FBI FISA application. He also wants the FBI’s notes (Form 302s) from debriefing Mr. Ohr, the link to Fusion GPS and the Clinton campaign.
Mr. Trump seemed prepared to publicize more FISA pages but then backed off because of concerns expressed by European allies.
A lingering question concerns the role, if any, that Britain’s MI6 spy service played in surveilling Trump people.
One irony is still discussed inside the House intelligence committee: The news media were mostly guarded in repeating Mr. Steele’s charges during the election campaign. But at the same time, the FBI embraced the dossier, using it to gain wiretaps, to draw its investigative road map and to plan to hire Mr. Steele away from the Democrats to dish more Trump dirt.