How Devin Nunes Got Where He Is Today

Networking, not expertise, got him the Intel gavel so many now want to take away

California Rep. Devin Nunes is facing criticism for gridlocking the House Intelligence Committee at a potentially historic point in history. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
California Rep. Devin Nunes is facing criticism for gridlocking the House Intelligence Committee at a potentially historic point in history. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 3, 2017 at 5:05am

Any search for a single Republican capable of undermining not only his party’s efforts to project a modicum of independence from President Donald Trump, but also the House’s institutional standing in the world of global affairs oversight, would not normally focus on an alfalfa and dairy farmer turned congressman from California.

But such is the uniquely unsettled nature of Washington this spring that the open casting call for the most newly pilloried person at the Capitol this year is over after just 10 weeks, the role awarded by virtually unanimous consent to Devin Gerald Nunes.

Presumably unwittingly, Nunes has overhauled his profile early in his eighth House term. The reputation he’d cultivated for low-key diligence, workmanlike bipartisanship and backroom networking during his first two years as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is gone, replaced with singular renown for gridlocking his panel at a potentially historic juncture after freelancing some not-so-smooth sleuthing that left him looking very much like an accomplice of the folks he’s supposed to be investigating.

If he’s troubled by the rapid turn of events — which have propelled him from relative obscurity to national ridicule on the sort of trajectory that Washington culture rarely permits to be reversed — Nunes hardly betrays any anxiety.

“Reports of my political demise will prove to be premature,” he said with a chuckle as he left the Capitol one afternoon last week.

With an almost reticent smile, he said once again that he would not heed the growing chorus of criticism from Democrats and even a few prominent Republicans who portray Nunes as so tainted that he should not have any further role in the House’s probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia while that country was meddling in last year’s election.

Those calls have only intensified since last week’s revelation that a handful of administration officials helped provide Nunes (pronounced NEW-ness) with classified intelligence about Trump and his associates being incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by U.S. spy agencies.

After a surreptitious rendezvous on the White House grounds to retrieve the reports, he shared his findings first at a news conference and then with the president — without informing any other lawmakers on his committee, Republican or Democrat. He subsequently called off several planned committee sessions, infuriating the minority side and putting House Intelligence’s Russian investigation effectively in limbo even as the parallel Senate committee launched its probe with a widely praised burst of bipartisanship.

The unmasking of the Nunes’ sources, and the revelation they were not the sort of whistleblowers he initially described, answered one big question about his highly irregular behavior this spring. Another question that remains, however, is how he ever ended up positioned to be in his current predicament.

The match between his backstory and his prominence seems wholly incongruous, and helps underscore the perception that Nunes is cavalierly playing at a very high-stakes game while in way over his head.

Off the farm

When he arrived at the Capitol in 2003 to represent a reliably Republican district in California’s Central Valley, becoming the second-youngest member of the House that year at age 29, Nunes had no experience in foreign affairs or military policy, let alone spycraft.

His brief adult life had been almost all about advancing in the family business of agriculture while dabbling in local affairs — all the while developing a penchant for befriending the right people at the right time that has proved instrumental to his steady political advancement.

The congressman’s grandfather emigrated from the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, and established a 640-acre family farm in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation’s most fertile regions. His grandmother later ran a dairy operation with the help of two of Nunes’ uncles, and he learned to raise cattle as a teenager before buying some farmland of his own with a brother and launching an alfalfa hay harvesting business.

After earning degrees in agriculture and agribusiness from California Polytechnic State University, he got his start in politics by volunteering for a candidate for the board of the two-year College of the Sequoias, which he had attended. And when the candidate unexpectedly quit, Nunes stepped in to get his own name on the ballot and at age 23, ousted a seasoned incumbent.

That school board seat allowed him to befriend his local congressman, Bill Thomas, one of the most powerful Republicans in the House and eventually the Ways and Means Committee chairman, and also the staffer then running Thomas’ district office, Kevin McCarthy.

Those two helped persuade Nunes to make a long-shot congressional bid in 1998 and then to help organize George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign in central California.

Thomas then engineered Nunes’ short-term reward, appointment as state director for the Agriculture Department’s rural development program, and followed up by propelling Nunes to victory two years later in a tough GOP primary that was tantamount to election in a deeply red district created after California gained a seat in reapportionment.

Thomas’ final act of patronage was helping arrange a seat for Nunes on Ways and Means before his own retirement, and succession by McCarthy, in 2006.

By that point, Nunes was making other important alliances in the House GOP Conference, including with the chairmen of House Intelligence during his freshmen and sophomore terms. In the brief interview last week, he described his interest in national security as an outgrowth of his election a year after the 9/11 attacks and right before the start of the Iraq War, and so he arranged to join several congressional delegation trips to war-on-terror hotspots arranged by Porter J. Goss of Florida and later Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.

“I’ve been passionate about learning how to best keep our country safe in a time of war since the day I got here,” Nunes said.

Early in his tenure, he also made the crucially important decision to back his colleague in the dwindling ranks of congressional cigarette smokers, Ohio’s John A. Boehner, when he scored his upset victory to become majority leader. That led to assignments on more overseas fact-finding trips run by the leadership and then, when Boehner was elevated to speaker and McCarthy to majority whip six years ago, he was readily granted his wish to join Select Intelligence.

Moving up

Nunes was tapped for the chairmanship at the end of 2014, when Michigan’s Mike Rogers retired, with Boehner choosing him over two other lawmakers with more seniority but also other committee gavels on the résumé.

He was then, and remains, the youngest House committee chairman by almost seven years. 

His 22nd District, which is about half Hispanic, just barely went for Trump last fall even as Nunes was cruising to re-election with two-thirds of the vote. That suggests his political footing back home remains solid, even though the editorial page of the dominant local newspaper, the Fresno Bee, chided his behavior during the Russia inquiry as “inept and bewildering” and labeling him as “subservient” to the president

He hardly ever made headlines during his first term as chairman, during which Democrats on the panel describe him as hardworking on the panel’s business and attentive to its cultures of both secrecy and bipartisanship.

But that started changing soon after the election. Having stayed neutral during the GOP nominating contest, he got solidly behind Trump during the fall campaign, was rewarded with a senior title in the transition hierarchy, claimed some credit for the selection of James Mattis as Defense secretary and did myriad turns on television defending the incoming president’s inconsistent foreign policy

It was during this time he also used the committee dais to air his frustration that he’s failing at a longstanding effort to put his chairman’s leverage to work securing something akin to a parochial victory. At a public committee hearing in November, Nunes lambasted three senior officials for supporting a site outside London for the new center for U.S. intelligence operations in Europe — instead of constructing the multibillion dollar complex at an underused U.S. Air Force field on Lajes in the Azores, his ancestral home and also of many of his constituents in central California’s extensive Portuguese-American community.

He also agitated plenty of colleagues with a radical, out-of-the-blue proposal in January to do away with the Appropriations Committee and gives its powers for apportioning discretionary spending to the legislative authorizing committees. House Republicans voted overwhelmingly against the idea.

But that short-lived annoyance on an internal matter has been nothing compared to the awkward position in which Nunes has placed his colleagues given a series of embarrassing daily headlines. House Republicans have publicly stuck by him, but some senior GOP senators have started poking at Nunes apparent lack of probity.

He could theoretically be punished for violating House rules against disclosing classified information obtained because he was chairman without permission from his colleagues, which he appeared to do when he told Trump what he’d learned during his secretive visit to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

David Valadao, the other Portuguese-American dairy farmer born in the 1970s who’s now a GOP House member from the Central Valley, offered this guidance to explain both his colleague’s political rise and his effort to weather the torrent of criticism about his behavior without relinquishing his authority:

“One thing about Devin that I’ve known for many years is that, once he gets started on something, he just plain doesn’t give up.”

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