The Dairy Farmer Overseeing U.S. Spies and the Russia Hack Investigation
Nothing in House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’s background indicates a natural interest in espionage—and his three degrees in agriculture and agricultural business suggest a very different passion.
In fact, the man charged with oversight of our nation’s spies is a dairy farmer.
But after eight terms in Congress, the low-key congressman has risen to become the head of one of Congress’ most secretive panels. As a close ally of former Speaker John Boehner, he was appointed to the committee in 2011, and rose quickly to become the chairman in 2015.
Nunes will be thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight Monday as the House Intelligence Committee holds its first open hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. elections. For the public, especially those that do not follow the minutiae of congressional politics, it may be their first introduction to the man—one who, by his own admission, is a pretty boring person.
“I’m pretty simple,” he told The Daily Beast in an interview, after being asked what he enjoys doing outside of work. “I like agriculture.”
Nunes also believes his agriculture background informs his work on intelligence due his familiarity with various farming technologies that have overlap with intelligence, such as the Global Positioning System. He announced he was running for Congress—and leaving the farming business, at least temporarily—right after Sept. 11, 2001.
“This is about national security, and most people know that the number one job of the federal government is to protect the American people,” Nunes told The Daily Beast in response. “There needs to be a mix. There needs to be people [in national security] who don’t have a military base in their district, don’t have some type of intelligence agency in their district… that’s very important for the process.”
Still, the cows are not far from his mind. He keeps in regular contact with his brother and father about their dairy farm; he has a small stake in two wineries; and he lives in the town of Tulare, California—part of the rural, agriculturally-focused district where two-thirds of voters supported him in the 2016 election.
“It is the Mississippi of California, the absolutely most right-wing part of California,” said Art Rodriguez, a Democratic activist from the area. “It’s the forgotten spot.”
And he can still nerd out about agriculture in his district—all told, 300 different crops are grown there, he said as he began listing out various products like Bubba describing different ways to cook shrimp in Forrest Gump. (California’s 22nd District produces almonds, walnuts, grapes, livestock, olive oil, citrus, and much more.)
Greg Gomez, a Democratic city council member in Farmersville, which is inside Nunes’s district, said he had only met the congressman once, calling him “robotic” and “reclusive” to his constituents. Progressives, a minority among his constituents, wonder openly why a representative with no significant military or intelligence assets in his district would focus so much time overseeing the nation’s spies.
“You’ve got the conservatives that are really proud that someone from Tulare County has risen to the position of power,” Gomez said. “Liberals think it is a joke… that he’s pushing a partisan agenda rather than helping his community.”
One of his closest friends in Congress, California Rep. David Valadao, represents a district that is next to Nunes’s. “He does have a sense of humor,” Valadao insisted—but when asked whether he had an anecdote that showed Nunes’s funny side, Valadao replied hastily, “No, not really.”
That sense of humor with an edge was present during the government shutdown crisis in 2013, when he was known for quippy quotes. At one point he admonished fellow Republicans who were willing to shut down the government over Obamacare, calling them “lemmings with suicide vests.” Later, he slammed fellow GOP House member Justin Amash as “al Qaeda’s best friend in the Congress” due to Amash’s criticism of government surveillance programs.
“Since then I’ve made up with Amash,” Nunes said regarding the incident. But he doesn’t regret making the comment. “I don’t regret anything. You can’t have regrets in this business. If not, every day you’d have multiple regrets. You have to learn from your mistakes and go on.”
When Nunes first became chairman of the committee, he began to shy away from press engagement.
“He’s not one to go chasing the camera, that’s for sure,” Valadao said. “When he took intel chair, that’s what a lot of us thought, that he wouldn’t be doing a lot of press.”
But the circumstances of the 2016 presidential election, and the evolving furor over the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, have made a low-key chairmanship impossible. Already he has held three press conferences to address the House Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation into the matter, with no signs of letting up.
When it comes to the Russia investigation, a straightforward chairman may not be such a bad thing, especially when President Donald Trump cannot be trusted to make careful and nuanced statements.
Nunes’s challenge is convincing the public that he is undertaking a transparent, bipartisan investigation that thoroughly reviews whether his party’s presidential nominee colluded with Russia during the campaign, and what role Russian interference had in the election.
And on this issue he has already stumbled—indeed, Nunes has tried to minimize the importance of his own panel’s investigation, and there are signs that he is already pre-judging the outcome of the probe.
Nunes has told reporters he didn’t think Russia wanted Trump to win the election, contradicting the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s intentions. He’s also stated that he didn’t see any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, something his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff, has refused to rule out in this early stage of the investigation. And he’s called a reporter on the White House’s behalf regarding ties between Russia and Trump associates, prompting some critics to argue that he is undermining the independence of his ongoing Russia probe.
Nunes has warned against a “witch hunt” against Americans who have ties with Russia, and has called the notion of an independent investigation into Trump and Russia “almost like McCarthyism revisited.” Democrats on his committee are taken aback by his continued insistence that there is less than meets the eye on Russia, even before the investigation has concluded.
“I thought he has been very, very fair as chairman, the two-plus years I’ve served under him,” Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley, a member of Nunes’s intelligence committee, told The Daily Beast. “I’m very surprised by his initial, dismissive comments about the nature of the investigation.”
Nunes wasn’t a strong Trump endorser during the campaign—in fact, he would only say that he would support the eventual Republican nominee—but he extended an offer to all candidates to brief them on national security issues, something Trump took him up on in March 2016, according to Politico.
Since the election, Nunes has inched closer to the White House, serving on the Trump presidential transition team. He claims credit for boosting two candidates into the cabinet: Gen. Jim Mattis for secretary of Defense and fellow House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Mike Pompeo for CIA director.
But his loyalty is not unlimited, and in recent days has shown indications of slipping. Nunes has been showing a recent willingness to correct the the president, in particular on the unproven allegation that the Obama administration “wiretapped” or surveilled Trump Tower during the campaign.
“I would preferred for him to have checked it and asked the question, versus make the allegation,” Nunes said Friday.
And one thing is clear: As he gavels open the House Intelligence Committee’s first open Russia hearing on Monday morning, Nunes wants Putin to pay for his meddling.
“I was warning about Russia’s involvement in a whole host of issues—including in our election process—for a very long time. Many, many years,” Nunes said Friday. “And I’ve been completely clear about that.”
He’s dead serious about his work. Asked if one of the commonalities between farming and intelligence was the manure, Nunes responds, straight-faced, “no, no.”