For a week, Washington has stared slack-jawed at the antics of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Flopsweat), the clown prince of the Trump-Russia intelligence and influence scandal.
To the bemusement of his colleagues on both side of the aisle, the media, and the intelligence community, the House Intelligence Committee chairman desperately spent his days racing toward every TV camera in sight, like a soft-chinned Jason Bourne plunging into battle.
Nunes’s manic flailing left a chain of confused, exhausted reporters trying to parse his daily lies, revisions, walkbacks, and pushbacks. His use of amateur intel slang was as cringeworthy as it was unconvincing. He did everything but show up in a fedora and trenchcoat. As he tried to change the subject from Russia and its influence over President Trump to the evil NSA’s boundless perfidy in “tappping” a poor, innocent, hard-working New York real-estate developer on behalf of that evil Kenyan Muslim Barack Obama, it became increasingly obvious that Nunes didn’t get this information from the intelligence community, but rather from the Trump White House.
Over the weekend, the first cracks in Nunes’s ludicrous story emerged. Michael Ellis, a former general counsel for Nunes, now works in the White House General Counsel’s Office on—wait for it—national-security matters. The Washington Occam’s Razor, in this case, led many to focus on the former Nunes staffer, and Nunes’s obvious discomfort when asked made it clear he was being fed intel from the White House. House Intelligence Committee staffers were leaking far and wide that they weren’t the source.
On Thursday, the Trump White House was rocked and rocked hard when The New York Times revealed that the bombshell of alleged illicit surveillance of Trump was provided to Nunes by Ellis and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the current intelligence director for the National Security Council. From whence did the memorably named Cohen-Watnick emerge? He is disgraced former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s stay-behind agent in the new H.R. McMaster-led NSC. McMaster, a thoroughgoing national-security professional, sought to fire Cohen-Watnick from his earliest days in the position.
But Cohen-Watnick has powerful friends in the White House. Both Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner weighed in to save Cohen-Watnick’s job. There’s a twist to this story that is unnoticed so far. They obviously went to McMaster first. Reporting indicates they then took their appeal to the president himself, who intervened personally on behalf of a relatively unknown 30-year-old aide who was only in the White House because of a man Trump was forced to fire.
What justified this level of protection and intervention? The pieces seem to click together easily. Bannon needed Cohen-Watnick to stay in place in the National Security Council, with the concomitant level of access to intelligence, in order to support the political pushback on the growing Russia story. The coverup and political pushback Bannon has personally led is fraught with danger, with obstruction of justice on the low end of the risk scale. That Bannon, Cohen-Watnick, and Ellis apparently worked together to loop the hapless Nunes into Bannon’s scheme was too dumb by a mile. In Washington, good conspiracies are as rare as hen’s teeth, and this one is utterly obvious. A good conspiracy needs a patsy, a great one needs an operator. Nunes is the former.
Nunes made himself the star of the drama without the requisite political or acting skills. As the Times revealed, Nunes got this highly classified COMINT (which is ALL Top Secret Sensitive Compartmentalized Information, for all of you playing our game at home) and leaked it to achieve a political end for the White House. He leaped out of an Uber as if his ass was on fire, met Cohen-Watnick and Ellis in secret at the White House, tattled to the president, then raced to vomit out specific details in a press conference. He lied frequently and badly, to try to keep up the game.
This ridiculous farce didn’t spring fully formed from Nunes’s brow. He shows—as the past week abundantly demonstrates—few of the skills needed to engage in the big games of either intelligence or of the real cut-and-thrust of the D.C. demimonde. Washington rewards talented liars of both parties and punishes the clumsy ones.
Nunes is a clumsy liar and it shows. He’s an errand boy sent by grocery clerks with just enough understanding of the game and the stakes to think this is going to work out because their base is always with them.
It’s not just the White House that’s in crisis. It’s increasingly obvious that the House of Representatives is also in trouble. Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearings were serious, probing, informative, and bipartisan; a marked contrast to the alternate reality Nunes and his allies tried to cast in their first hearings. For the House, Nunes has almost singlehandedly wrecked the credibility of its intelligence committee, raising the specter of either a Senate committee that dominates the investigation or a select committee with sweeping powers that will terrify this White House.
At this very moment, Speaker Ryan is desperately trying to cobble together a governing majority in the body from its disparate camps of Freedom Caucus firebreathers, mainline Republicans, the Trump Cheer Squad, and the 20 or so members in swing seats. Ryan can’t afford more embarrassments, and Nunes may have put him in an untenable position. This is particularly painful for Ryan because just two days ago he vigorously defended Nunes’s performance as head of the House Intelligence Committee and because Nunes claims he informed Ryan what he was up to before going to the president.
Most organizations and individuals in a political or media crisis share one characteristic: They don’t know they’re in a crisis until the smell of smoke and the sound of sirens is almost deafening. Humans have a lot of cognitive blind spots, and normalcy bias is one of the most pernicious. The Trump White House’s active obstruction of investigations into the Russian influence on the president, his team, and his allies was broken wide open Thursday, the Nunes show came to an ugly end, and the nation got a major break in a crisis that no amount of muttering “this is fine” will rectify.