This morning we were greeted by the news that the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Devin Nunes, finally agreed to step down from leading the committee’s investigation into evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. The headline in the Washington Post was typical of the media coverage: “House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes recuses himself from Russia probe.” But is that what actually happened?
A careful reading of Nunes’ statement reveals that he did not use the word “recusal,” which is universally understood in government to mean that the person recused will have no dealings whatsoever with a matter under consideration. (Much of the brief statement is consumed by his denouncing “leftwing activist groups” for filing “baseless” charges against him to the Office of Congressional Ethics).
Neither is he stepping down as chairman. What he said was that he will temporarily let fellow committee Republican Mike Conaway (R-TX) lead the Russia investigation, assisted by members Tom Rooney and Trey Gowdy (the latter of Benghazi investigation infamy). They will lead the investigation for as long as the House Ethics Committee investigates the charges forwarded to it by the ethics office.
How are we to interpret this statement? One could chalk up Nunes’ wording to carelessness by a member who has become notorious as a loose cannon for his public relations stunt of going to the White House with classified information already in its possession. But that is the reason that committees of Congress have legal councils: to carefully draft statements of this importance so that they say exactly what is intended, rather than what flannel-mouth congressmen think they intend to mean. It is also noteworthy that HPSCI committee rules contain no provision for recusal or temporary replacement of a chairman.
Given all that we know about the Trump administration and its congressional Republican accomplices, extreme caution should be the order of the day for interpreting Nunes’s statement. What is to prevent him from being told the facts of the investigation by Republican members of the committee (or the relevant staff, who are likely to be Nunes loyalists) and relaying those facts to Donald Trump? After all, Nunes’s committee clearances have not been revoked, and Trump, as president, is authorized to hear any and all classified information.
This so-called Nunes recusal could well be like Trump’s alleged blind trust, a trust which in fact provides him not only with the precision optics to see what his holdings are, but even the tools to use them for his own benefit. Just as the mainstream press should never have been so eager to apply the label of “trust” to a sham legal agreement that makes a mockery of the concept, it should be very cautious about using the word “recusal” when Nunes himself didn’t use it.