To the extent Donald Trump has reordered the power structure of the Republican Party, Devin Nunes has emerged as the main beneficiary of the era. Nunes has coordinated an intricate counter-narrative in Trump’s defense, one that presents Trump as a wholly innocent figure preyed upon by a vast conspiracy of deep state bureaucrats operating throughout the government and using the national media to further their agenda. Nunes’s often hysterical theories have gained increasing prominence in the conservative media, many of whose members operate as his passive conduits.
As the state-of-the-art Trumpist of the party’s congressional wing, Nunes’s opening statement reveals the best case they have been able to muster for his defense. As a matter of substance, it is almost nonexistent.
Nunes’s statement is a pastiche of hoary fulminations against the enemies of the president. It begins with an extensive recap of the “Russia hoax,” which, even if Nunes’s account was wholly accurate, is totally irrelevant to Trump’s culpability in the Ukraine scandal. Nunes proceeds to denounce the process of witness depositions (“a closed-door audition process in a cultlike atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol” — a ludicrous description of hearings in which both parties participated).
Here is one small example of the fever-dream quality of Nunes’s remarks: In one passage, Nunes claims the whistle-blower’s lawyer “touted a ‘coup’ against the president and called for his impeachment just weeks after his election.”
If true, this fact would be completely irrelevant. Who cares if the whistle-blower hired a lawyer who hates Trump? What would it even matter if the whistle-blower himself was a hardened communist, since the whistle-blower’s entire role was to bring to Congress’s attention a series of facts that have been independently confirmed? In any case, Nunes’s weird diversion is not even true. The lawyer, Mark Zaid, was denouncing the firing of Sally Yates as a coup by Trump, not calling for a coup. Here is the tweet:
The context of Zaid’s comment is made clear by the text he appends to his comment. House Republicans lopped off the bottom part and displayed it in the hearing room, to make it appear as if he were advocating a coup rather than denouncing one.
The “coup” accusation may be the silliest of Nunes’s charges, but it is characteristic of his opening statement, which is devoted to hurling wild charges at various opponents — bureaucrats conspiring against Trump, Democrats eager to undermine him, alleged corruption by the Biden family.
Nunes’s substantive engagement was confined to a few anemic bullet points tacked onto the end of his testimony:
• After expressing skepticism of foreign aid and concern about foreign corruption on the campaign trail, President Trump outraged the bureaucracy by acting skeptically about foreign aid and expressing concerns about foreign corruption.
• Officials’ alarm at the president’s actions was typically based on secondhand, thirdhand, and even fourth-hand rumors and innuendo.
• They believed it was an outrage for President Trump to fire an ambassador, even though the president has full authority to retain or remove diplomats for any reason at any time.
• Officials showed a surprising lack of interest in the indications of Ukrainian election meddling that deeply concerned the president, at whose pleasure they serve.
• Despite all their dissatisfaction with President Trump’s Ukraine policy, the president approved the supply of weapons to Ukraine, unlike the previous administration, which provided blankets as defense against invading Russians.
These defenses can be dispatched almost immediately:
• Trump is just skeptical of foreign aid? Well, too bad, Congress passed it. That doesn’t enable him to use it is a bargaining chip to order up investigations of his rivals.
• He was concerned about corruption? An obvious lie, as he evidenced zero concern about any “corruption” that wasn’t simply code for his political opponents, and had indeed undermined reform in Ukraine and facilitated new corruption.
• Alarm was based on secondhand rumors? Ridiculous — officials had firsthand exposure to Trump’s extortion policy for months, recording their objections contemporaneously in texts and notes.
• Trump “approved the supply of weapons”? Well, yeah, after the whistle-blower report he tried to suppress prompted a congressional investigation and his scheme was exposed.
What does Nunes’s statement tell us? It shows the evidence that Trump used American diplomatic leverage to pressure Ukraine to open investigations of his domestic opponents is so redundant that there is no denying it. The party’s only response is to polarize the issue by dissolving it into a cultural struggle between Trump and his enemies.
In his questioning, Nunes made the most astonishing possible claim. “I think one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories,” he said, “is that somehow the president of the United States would want a country he doesn’t even like, doesn’t want to give foreign aid to, to have the Ukrainians start an investigation into Bidens.”
A conspiracy theory? Trump not only suggested this in his phone call with Zelensky, he said it on the White House lawn:
REPORTER: What exactly did you hope the Ukrainian president would do about the Bidens?
TRUMP: I would think that if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation … they should investigate the Bidens.
This post has been updated.