Ever feel like U.S. politics has gone round the bend, and taken a too-sharp turn towards totally crazy? Well, get ready for this week. Odds are, you’re about to be inundated with political headlines and breaking news alerts about how the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, California Republican Devin Nunes, is proposing holding staunch conservative hero and Republican stalwart Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in “contempt of Congress” for withholding certain documents relating to alleged FBI abuse of surveillance permissions granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, a little understood entity that oversees national security-focused wiretapping and the like.
No one seems to really know what Nunes is after, except for Nunes and the Department of Justice itself. That’s because, per Politico, “Elements of his request are classified,” which Nunes helpfully admits makes it a “challenge” for average Americans to have the slightest understanding of what the heck is going on here.
No kidding. Probably, Nunes trying to get a fuller read-out of the basis upon which the FISA Court approved a warrant to surveil certain communications of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page (who doesn’t seem to have given much advice, and seems to have been disowned by the Trump campaign before he could, when his Russia ties were exposed). And it’s a fun political stunt for a guy whose political fortunes suddenly look different to what they did four years ago. But it’s opaque and unclear, and no one really knows.
Here’s what people do, and should know: Nunes is not the guy that should be leading this charge. Those of us who have frequently criticized FISA court warrant rubber-stamping would indeed love to get more insight into the process, but Nunes—far from being a principled, lifelong skeptic of the power and reach of the “Deep State” has actually been the #1 enabler of said power and reach in recent years.
If Nunes had had it his way, the FBI wouldn’t even have needed a FISA warrant to surveil Page’s communications with people overseas; they could have just done it with no oversight at all. That’s because in 2007, Nunes voted to permit so-called "warrantless wiretapping.”
A couple of years ago, Nunes called Rep. Justin Amash, an actual career-long advocate for more transparency regarding government surveillance, and someone who has opposed measures that would allow surveillance without warrants—unlike Nunes, who’s all about the warrantless wiretapping until he thinks there’s political hay to be made out of pulling an Olympics-grade flip-flop live on Fox News—“Al Qaeda’s best friend in the Congress.” This is exactly how little Nunes truly worries, in his heart, about the government being allowed to surveil its citizens with little to no oversight, for literally any reason.
And this is the person taking the fight to Sessions, who while sometimes wrong on policy, has been remarkably consistent in his belief in tough law enforcement and entities like the Department of Justice following the law, as harsh as the consequences of that may be. He’s the guy who brings the law and order credentials to the Trump coalition, whether the GOP as a whole supports them or not. Nunes is the flip-flopper and the opportunist here; love Sessions or hate him, he’s the guy who’s been acting on the same principles that have guided him through his entire public life, whether as a prosecutor, or as a Senator, or as Attorney General.
This leaves Nunes looking like a guy who’s irritated that a Cabinet member won’t act like a typical politician, which is somewhat ironic considering that so many Trump voters were pissed off about typical politicians acting like typical politicians.
But there’s also arguably a typical politician motive: California Republicans, including Nunes, are facing tougher-than-expected challenges in this year’s mid-terms. Voters in their state aren’t thrilled about the tax reform bill passed by Congress. And Democrats did some decent recruitment into even unwinnable districts. Nunes is, much to his surprise, facing off against a challenger who brought in more than $1 million in the first quarter. CNN keeps going out to his district to do segments on his political plight. So it’s no surprise that he’d be pulling stunts that look blatantly political and flip-flopping like a Delta Smelt out of water; he probably needs to, to bring in campaign cash from heretofore untapped donors and try to put himself back in clearly “safe” territory.
But in the meantime, we’re going to see him target a guy that the conservative base of the GOP has always loved far more than they ever have Nunes, for good reasons, with a total lack of clarity as to what exactly he’s demanding—and probably fail in his quest to hold Sessions in contempt, because it’s hard to believe that Speaker Paul Ryan will sign off on that one in his remaining days.
Republicans fighting Republicans is typically a great way to make sure the party as a whole underperforms in the mid-terms. Nunes seems to be happily playing the role of instigator here, and given his record and his likely motives, the rest of us should be very skeptical.