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Nunes to move from supporting to leading role in Trump impeachment defense

Top Republican on Intelligence panel will be in spotlight during public hearings after taking back seat in closed depositions

House Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes leaves a closed-door deposition related to the House’s impeachment inquiry on Oct. 16. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes leaves a closed-door deposition related to the House’s impeachment inquiry on Oct. 16. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes will soon shift from the passenger to the driver’s seat in the Republican defense of President Donald Trump as the House enters the public hearing portion of its impeachment inquiry next month.

Nunes, a nine-term California Republican who’s developed a distaste for the media in recent years as he’s become a staunch defender of the president, has taken a low-key role in the impeachment inquiry compared to House Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan, a Trump ally who is more friendly with the press.

It’s an odd dynamic considering Nunes is the GOP counterpart to Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, who has been chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead the impeachment inquiry.

Jordan, founding chairman of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, and Steve Castor, his chief investigative counsel on the Oversight panel, have been leading the Republican questioning in closed-door witness depositions. Nunes has been present — at times — and has participated, but he and his staff have not been directing the GOP portion of the proceedings, several Republican and Democratic sources interviewed for this story told CQ Roll Call.

That begs the question of whether Nunes will be prepared to lead Republican questioning in public hearings, which unlike the closed-door depositions, will be conducted solely by the Intelligence Committee. The Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees have also been party to the depositions.

Jordan told CQ Roll Call that he and Nunes have not yet discussed a transition plan from the closed-door depositions to the public hearings, noting he is still focused on several witnesses testifying in private this week.

Nunes declined to be interviewed for this story, telling CQ Roll Call that he only does live interviews with select non-mainstream media outlets. He did offer this refrain for what he says he tells all reporters asking about his Intelligence Committee work: “I don’t talk about committee business on any subject.”

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‘Team effort’

Jordan describes the GOP’s deposition preparation and questioning as a team effort between members and staff from all three panels but confirmed that his investigative counsel on Oversight has been the primary questioner. (Deposition questioning is conducted primarily by staff, although members also participate. The inquiry switches back and forth between Democrats and Republicans roughly every 45 minutes.)

“Mr. Castor has been very involved, yes, that’s very accurate,” Jordan said.

Asked how Oversight came to take the lead, he said, “I don’t know. That’s just how it worked out.”

“But all counsels, all the staff, the Intel staff has been great, the Foreign Affairs — they’ve all been involved,” the Ohio Republican added. “And they’ve all been really helpful they’re doing research and everything else. So it’s been a team effort.”

Several Republican members who serve on one of the three panels and have been participating in the depositions also described a collaborative effort but none disputed that Jordan and his counsel were taking charge. 

No one could offer a clear explanation for how that came to be, but a few sources privately offered some theories. One is that Castor, who has worked for Oversight Republicans since 2005, was the most qualified to lead the deposition questioning.

A related theory is that Jordan and North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, his fellow Oversight Republican and Freedom Caucus co-founder, were willing and eager to do the work. Multiple sources said that between Jordan and Meadows, one is always in the room for the near-daily depositions that frequently extend into the evenings.

One observation consistently noted by Republicans is that the impeachment inquiry shouldn’t be in the jurisdiction of the Intelligence Committee at all. They assert Pelosi put it there so her ally Schiff could be in charge instead of Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler

Of the three committees Pelosi decided to task with questioning witnesses about Ukraine, Oversight seems to be the most natural fit because the officials testifying span multiple government agencies, a GOP leadership source said. There was not a specific directive to have Jordan lead or any intentional effort to sideline Nunes, the source said.

Republicans on House Intelligence defended Nunes and blame Schiff for not keeping them in the loop.

“We’ve been supplanted by the way the Dems are running the shop. They’re not telling us what’s going on,” Texas Rep. K. Michael Conaway said. “They seem to be a lot more linked up with the other committees than they are with the Republican side of the Intelligence Committee. So it’s Chairman Schiff’s choice.”

A Schiff spokesman declined to comment.

‘Fully engaged’

House Republican leaders say Nunes has been active in the impeachment inquiry, working with Jordan and Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul of Texas.

“We’ve definitely had all of the them fully engaged,” Minority Whip Steve Scalise said of Jordan, Nunes and McCaul. The Louisiana Republican said he was just in a briefing Tuesday on the impeachment inquiry in which the three ranking members, whose panels are the only ones able to participate in the depositions, presented updates. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the GOP has been working as a team to respond to the impeachment inquiry. That not only includes Jordan, Nunes and McCaul but also the top Republicans on the Judiciary, Financial Services and Ways and Means panels. 

Democrats launched investigations into Trump this year from all six panels, and in September Pelosi announced all of those probes would continue under the umbrella of an impeachment inquiry.

“Once the Democrats decided to do it, we’ve brought all six [ranking members] together because you’re going to get different resources and everything else, and people just worked collaboratively together,” said McCarthy, who like Nunes is one of the few remaining California Republicans in Congress.

Both McCarthy and Scalise said Nunes is prepared for public questioning of witnesses, which have so far come primarily from the State and Defense departments and the White House and its National Security Council. 

“Devin knows this inside and out and frankly has been calling out a lot of the corruption that’s going on within some of these agencies,” Scalise said. 

Leadership’s confidence in Nunes is also validated by the fact that he still remains the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee. As GOP leader, McCarthy chooses who gets to serve in that role, although Nunes was named to the post by former Speaker John A. Boehner. Nunes is also a senior member of Ways and Means, which is generally the most coveted committee assignment.

Nunes chaired the Intelligence panel in the last two Congresses under a Republican majority. He is probably most known for having to recuse himself from leading the panel’s investigation into Russian’s attempts to influence the 2016 election after the House Ethics Committee opened an inquiry into whether he made unauthorized disclosures of classified information, in violation of House rules and of federal law.

The Ethics panel later cleared Nunes of the charges, which he had claimed were politically motivated. But Democrats still distrusted him for launching what they considered an unfounded investigation into whether U.S. intelligence agencies incidentally collected information about members of the Trump transition team, of which Nunes himself was a member. 

Republican sources denied that the Russia investigation had bearing on why Nunes has not been leading them in the depositions in the Ukraine inquiry. 

One matter that could become complicated for Nunes as he steps into a more leading role is that a longtime former staffer, Kashyap Patel, now works at the the White House and could be called as a witness because he has come up in other officials’ testimony. 

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