On Wednesday, The Rachel Maddow Show released leaked audio of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes that was recorded at a private fundraiser for his Republican colleague, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The recording shows Nunes’ commitment to using the power of his office to obstruct Robert’s Mueller investigation of Donald Trump, with the congressman acknowledging his aim to protect the president from investigators to ensure the GOP remains in power.
“If [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions won’t unrecuse and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones,” Nunes said to the crowd of Republican donors. “Which is really the danger. That’s why … we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.”
These private remarks are the opposite of shocking given what Nunes has said and done in public. Since Trump took office, Nunes has publicized classified information meant to support a claim by Trump that Barack Obama had personally “tapped” his phones without revealing that his source was the White House itself; hyped and produced a memo, which Trump’s own Justice Department described as misleading, that was meant to discredit the FBI; prematurely closed the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation and reached conclusions that contradicted the findings and beliefs of the intelligence community and even some of the committee’s Republican members; campaigned to publicize classified information that intelligence officials have described as directly threatening intelligence-gathering sources and methods; and spent the last few months building a campaign to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a way Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called “cavalier.”
There is one way, though, in which Nunes’ fundraiser comments might reveal something important: They show his belief that he has the support of Republican leadership in his campaign to shield Trump. For her part, McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Republican Conference, seemed to indicate he is correct in that view.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, told me last week that he felt that Ryan has at least tacitly “endorsed” Nunes’ “malfeasance.” Ryan has portrayed the situation as otherwise, publicly distancing himself from the efforts to impeach Rosenstein and pressing his colleagues to back off that attempt after articles of impeachment were submitted last week.
Hardline Republicans, however, have promised that impeachment options “remain on the table.” Rosenstein has become the top target of the president’s defenders, because he has ultimate authority over the Mueller probe that Trump has so vocally and consistently declared to be a “witch hunt.” (On Thursday, he called it a “rigged witch hunt.”)
Nunes’ comments reveal that his current plan is to wait until Brett Kavanaugh has been confirmed to the Supreme Court by the Senate and then to return to trying to get Rosenstein impeached. Here’s the relevant portion of audio:
Audience member: “But also, on things that came up in the House on Rosenstein impeachment thing. And it appears from an outsider that the Republicans were not supported.”
Nunes: “Yeah, well, so it’s a bit complicated, right? And I say that because you have to, so we only have so many months left, right? So if we actually vote to impeach, OK, what that does is that triggers the Senate then has to take it up. Well, and you have to decide what you want right now because the Senate only has so much time. Do you want them to drop everything and not confirm the Supreme Court justice, the new Supreme Court justice? … I’ve said publicly Rosenstein deserves to be impeached. I mean, so, I don’t think you’re gonna get any argument from most of our colleagues. The question is the timing of it right before the election.”
McMorris Rodgers: “Also, the Senate has to start –”
Nunes: The Senate would have to start, the Senate would have to drop everything they’re doing and start to, and start with impeachment on Rosenstein. And then take the risk of not getting Kavanaugh confirmed. So it’s not a matter that any of us like Rosenstein. It’s a matter of, it’s a matter of timing.
Nunes states that the Rosenstein impeachment is merely being delayed, not entirely tabled. McMorris Rodgers, too, seems to acknowledge that the dynamics of the Senate, which is hoping to hold hearings on Kavanaugh’s nomination next month, prevent a Rosenstein impeachment from going ahead right now.
It’s unclear whether McMorris Rodgers is speaking for the House Republican leadership. It’s possible McMorris Rodgers is patronizing Nunes. It’s also possible she’s serious about giving him the chance to impeach Rosenstein. Given the persistence of Trump’s House supporters and the timing of Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation, we’ll likely have answers to these questions very soon.