Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested during a private fundraiser July 30 that he and other Republicans are “the only ones” who can protect President Donald Trump from legal peril, according to a secret recording obtained by the Rachel Maddow Show.
“If [Attorney General Jeff Sessions] won’t un-recuse himself, and [special counsel Robert Mueller] won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones,” Nunes said at the fundraiser for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “Which is really the danger.”
The surreptitious recording provides a window into what one of Trump’s top defenders won’t say in public about the Russia probe, and apparently confirms what has been clear for nearly a year: Trump’s allies are conducting a campaign to undermine the Russia investigation on his behalf.
“I mean, we have to keep all these seats,” Nunes told the crowd at the fundraiser. “We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.”
Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill have long railed against the Russia probe, which the president has branded a politically motivated “witch hunt.” Nunes has been perhaps the most prominent and effective soldier in Trump’s battle to undermine both the congressional and FBI investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia, and possible obstruction of justice on the part of the president.
As head of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes brought a controversial end to that panel’s Russia probe. He killed the committee’s inquiry in March, concluding that there was no coordination between Trump and the Russians and that the Kremlin did not have a preference for Trump over Hillary Clinton when it meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
But according to Democrats on the panel, Nunes and the House Intelligence Republicans derailed the probe, used it to provide political cover for the president and ended it prematurely.
“They tanked it from the beginning,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of the committee, told Mic in March.
At the same time he was apparently subverting his own committee’s Russia investigation, Nunes was working to undercut the Mueller probe by alleging partisan, anti-Trump misconduct at the highest levels of the FBI and Department of Justice.
In February, Nunes released a controversial memo detailing supposed abuses of surveillance authority on the part of federal law enforcement against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. But the memo left out critical information, analysts said, and at times seemed to undermine its own point.
“This is advocacy, and not particularly sophisticated advocacy,” former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter told Mic at the time. “Not impartial legal analysis.”
Still, the alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by federal law enforcement have formed the basis of some of the most potent lines of attack against the Mueller probe by Trump and his allies. They have also been used by Republicans to attack Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has overseen the FBI investigation since Sessions recused himself from the matter in early 2017.
Conservatives in the House of Representatives in July introduced a resolution to impeach Rosenstein — a move that would likely be regarded as an effort to kneecap Mueller, and is unlikely to pass through the chamber right now.
In his closed-door remarks at the fundraiser, Nunes suggested the only reason the effort to oust Rosenstein hasn’t gotten broader support is not because Republicans back the deputy attorney general, but because the “timing” isn’t right yet.
Seeking to get rid of Rosenstein now would “risk” not getting Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh confirmed, Nunes said, suggesting impeachment proceedings could also be dangerous “right before the election,” referring to the November midterms.
“It’s not a matter that any of us like Rosenstein,” Nunes said. “It’s a matter of timing.”
The recording doesn’t only lay bare some of the strategy behind Nunes and other Trump defenders attacks on investigators. It also appears to indicate the degree of legal peril even some of Trump’s closest allies may believe he’s in.
In one segment of the recording, Nunes can be heard telling the crowd that “we sometimes cringe on the president’s tweets” — a possible acknowledgement of the legal difficulties Trump may be causing himself with his frequent online broadsides against Mueller and other possibly incriminating social media remarks on the investigation.
In yet another portion of the remarks, Nunes seems to acknowledge that Trump or members of his campaign may have broken the law, telling the crowd at the fundraiser that it would be “criminal” for a campaign to be involved in the dissemination of “stolen emails” by a foreign government.
Members of the Trump campaign had contacts with WikiLeaks, which released stolen emails from the Clinton campaign and the Democrats. Trump himself repeatedly praised the organization from the campaign trail.
In July 2016, Trump publicly called on Russia to find Clinton’s missing emails. That same day, according to an indictment in July from Mueller, Russian intelligence operatives began a spear-phishing effort against the Clinton campaign.
Additionally, according to the indictment, a “person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump” had communicated with Guccifer 2.0 — a fictitious online persona the Kremlin used to release stolen documents from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party. Roger Stone, a GOP operative and close Trump ally, has said the person referenced is “probably” him.
In July 2016, top-ranking members of the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump Jr., met with a Kremlin-connected attorney under the belief she had dirt on Clinton.
In a tweet on Aug. 5, Trump contradicted his initial misleading statement about the nature of the Trump Tower rendezvous, admitting that his “wonderful son” had sought damaging information about his Democratic opponent, but that there was nothing illegal about it.
“This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “It went nowhere. I did not know about it!”
Meanwhile, as pressure on the president has continued to mount, Trump and his allies have increased their attacks on Mueller.