‘I think you can count the number of people who would vote for or against Nunes based on the Mueller report on one hand…’
Mueller did not name the California Republican in his redacted investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election despite speculation from Nunes’s critics that the congressman was under scrutiny in some way because of his close ties to President Donald Trump.
Nunes was able to safeguard his seat in 2018 from a well-financed challenge, in a state where new ballot-harvesting laws helped Democrats unseat about half of the already sparse GOP delegation.
However, Democrats have once again named the ranking House Intelligence minority member as one of their top targets for 2020.
As recently as January, Nunes’s 2018 Democratic opponent Andrew Janz tweeted, “It looks like prosecutors are investigating Devin Nunes regarding a secret meeting with convicted criminal Michael Flynn and others. We may soon discover why Nunes risked it all to cover up for Trump last year.”
The tweet linked to an article that reported Mueller was investigating a meeting that involved Nunes and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia.
If Mueller really was investigating the meeting, the prosecutor did not show his hand in public documents.
Janz last year used Nunes’s national reputation as a key Trump ally to raise more than $9 million and give Nunes his toughest challenge yet. Janz still lost by 5 percentage points in the Republican district.
Turning the Tables
Nunes has declared the Mueller investigation clears Trump of wrongdoing. He now wants to turn the tables on the Obama-era intelligence officials who launched it under false pretenses based on opposition research supplied by the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Last week, Nunes sent eight criminal referrals to Attorney General Bill Barr over DOJ officials he believes have acted improperly.
But Republicans won’t have the power in the House to issue subpoenas until at least 2020, and despite pledges from Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham, R-SC, that he would investigate, Senate Republicans have not yet pursued the same lines of inquiry, at least publicly.
That means most of the questions Nunes is raising pose the risk of going unanswered.
That allows him to act as the foil to House Democrats such as Intelligence Chair Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. It also cements his national persona as Trump’s ally.
“The same behavior that calls into question whether [Nunes] knows he’s in a third branch of government with oversight responsibilities is what works politically for him in terms of fundraising,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran GOP strategist based in Sacramento.
Nunes raised $1.2 million in the first quarter of 2019.
Janz does not plan to challenge Nunes again, and Democrats have not identified the candidate they want to make a run at the Republican.
But on Monday, Janz declined to retract his criticism of Nunes, saying the congressman’s omission from the report was not necessarily a sign of Nunes’s innocence.
“Assuming Devin Nunes’s name wasn’t something that was redacted due to an ongoing investigation,” Janz said, “I can only assume Robert Mueller was deferring to Congress or the appropriate congressional committees [on] any investigation of a sitting member.”
Congress can always refer a future case to the Department of Justice, Janz added, if it believes one of its members did something illegal.
He hopes the House continues to look into Nunes’s conduct, particularly as a member of Trump’s transition team in early 2017.
Nunes used his power as a former House Intelligence Committee chairman to release a memo describing the origins of the Mueller report and to request meetings with British officials about material covered in the investigation.
Janz, a Fresno County prosecutor, said the people of the 22nd District deserve to know why Nunes attempted to kill an investigation “which found Russian interference in our elections and 10 separate and specific instances where President Trump arguably obstructed justice.”
However, some contend that the Russian interference was negligibly small in scale, particularly compared with the disruptive and divisive impact of the investigation.
And the notion that Trump obstructed justice, a widespread Democratic talking point, was dismissed by the Department of Justice largely on the basis that there was no underlying crime to warrant the administration of justice in the first place.
That makes the establishment of intent very difficult for a prosecutor—as was the case with Hillary Clinton’s likely illegal use of a private, unsecured server to transmit classified information.
Janz repeated another popular talking point by accusing Nunes and other Republicans of mischaracterizing Mueller’s report. He said finding insufficient evidence is not equal to “total exoneration.”
Nor does it equate to guilt.
Changing the Subject
Despite their resolution to continue indefinitely a chain of partisan investigations where the independent one failed to yield the desired outcome, Democrats are also hoping to change the subject.
They claim they want to move past Mueller and connect Nunes to Trump’s policies and focus, such as the 2017 Republican tax law and health care votes they feel are unpopular in the region.
“From raising taxes on millions of Californians to voting to raise health care costs while cutting benefits, voters will remember come Election Day that Nunes stands with special interests instead of Californians. Democrats will continue to call him out every step of the way for continuously carrying water for Trump instead of fighting for his constituents,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Andy Orellana in a statement to McClatchy.
But without new revelations in the Mueller report, or a Republican majority in the House, Democrats will mostly be rehashing the same attacks they used in 2018.
They might not need new info, said Mike Lynch, a longtime Democratic strategist in the San Joaquin Valley.
Many voters already connect Nunes with Trump. Trump will almost certainly be on the ticket in 2020, which could boost some Democratic turnout against Nunes, Lynch said.
However, the opposite is more often true; members of the president’s party frequently enjoy the benefits of a coat-tail effect in presidential election years.
Either way, Lynch downplayed the impact that the Mueller Report likely would have on Nunes’ race with roughly a year and a half of news cycles remaining.
“I think you can count the number of people who would vote for or against Nunes based on the Mueller report on one hand,” he said.
©2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.