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Devin Nunes' impeachment defense of Trump — and possible Ukraine collusion — redefines partisan hackery

Not content with rhetorical support for Trump, Nunes may have met with a former (and highly corrupt) Ukrainian prosecutor to discuss the effort to vilify Joe Biden.
Image: Devin Nunes
Rep. Devin Nunes at a House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 20, 2019.Erin Schaff / Pool via Bloomberg

At last Thursday’s impeachment hearing, Fiona Hill, President Donald Trump's former top adviser on Russia and Europe, had a very direct message for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill said. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

Her comments came the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin had boasted at an event in Moscow: “Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”

In effect that was also a shoutout to Nunes. As Trump’s loyal attack ferret on the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes has continually pushed the same debunked conspiracy theories about Ukraine, the Democratic National Committee and CrowdStrike that the Russians have apparently worked so diligently to spread. Indeed, Nunes has become the de facto face of the GOP defense of Trump, in all of its bizarre contempt for facts, its willingness to ignore and defame witnesses and its zeal to defend the president at all costs — including actively colluding with efforts to dig up dirt on his political opponents.

As Hill sat in front of Nunes, the former national security aide made it clear she would not be playing his game. “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.”

As Trump’s loyal attack ferret, Nunes has continually pushed the same debunked conspiracy theories the Russians worked so diligently to spread.

By any measure it was an extraordinary, in-your-face rebuke to the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Not content with rhetorical support for Trump and his bizarre conspiracy theories, we now learn that Nunes may also have traveled to Europe to meet with a former (and highly corrupt) Ukrainian prosecutor to discuss the effort to vilify former Vice President Joe Biden. (Speaking with Fox News' Maria Bartiromo on Sunday, Nunes dodged questions about the report.)

In Trump World, Nunes’ eagerness to spread conspiracy theories has been rewarded. Even as his defenses of Trump have crumbled, one after the other, Nunes has reveled in his rock star status, which he now shares with figures like Rep. Jim Jordan, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Elise Stefanik.

In the real world, Nunes’ behavior has become so openly outlandish it's drawing fire from former colleagues. Even among the antics of Jordan and Stefanik on the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes stands out.

As the hearings wrapped up, former Republican congressman and current (long-shot) presidential candidate Joe Walsh tweeted: “One takeaway for what it’s worth: @DevinNunes is a stupid, partisan hack.”

Perhaps, but Walsh’s critique seems incomplete. It is true that Nunes will never be confused with Abraham Lincoln in either intellect or statesmanship. It also is worth remembering that he is the guy suing a Twitter account called “Devin Nunes' Cow,” for $250 million for (among other things) calling him a “treasonous cowpoke,” and tweeting that: “Devin’s boots are full of manure. He’s udder-ly worthless and its pasture time to move him to prison.”

Walsh is also right that Nunes is, like so many of his colleagues, a political hack. But he’s more than that. Devin Nunes has redefined hackery in the age of Trump.

Old-fashioned hackery generally consisted of loyalty and a willingness to take one for the party, because hacks were concerned with self-preservation. But the thing about this form of hackery is that there were limits — a point beyond which even the most devoted hack would not go. (See: Watergate.)

So how to explain Nunes and his colleagues?

It is one thing to defend their party’s president against his partisan foes. This is hardly unprecedented. But the innovation of Trumpian hackery is the demand that hacks set their intellect, character and political future on fire.

Nunes is the very model of this new hackery. He is not merely Trump’s defender, he has become his doppelgänger and co-conspirator, willing to peddle discredited propaganda likely cooked up by Russian military intelligence if Trump demands it.

There are two possibilities here: Nunes knows that he is cynically using Trump-friendly talking points because they play well on Fox News, or he actually believes this fetid mass of falsehoods because, as Slate’s Will Saletan told me, “he’s been using his own product.” It’s not clear which is worse, but the question goes to the essence of the new hackery.

Nunes is the very model of this new hackery. He is not merely Trump’s defender, he has become his doppelganger and co-conspirator.

In Nunes’s world, coherence and truth are not the point; his disjointed non sequiturs make for easily digested sound bites and video clips. Reality is what you make it in the newly Trumpified GOP.

In last week’s hearings, Nunes often seemed to simply ignore the evidence in front of him, choosing instead to toss off random buzzwords — “star chamber,” “Chalupa,” “black ledger,” Steele dossier,” “coup,” “Burisma” — while attacking the witnesses and the supposed agenda of the Democrats.

“In their mania to attack the president,” Nunes said at one point, “no conspiracy theory is too outlandish for the Democrats.” He then proceeded to spin out his own outlandish theory of Ukrainian attempts to sabotage Trump. “Once you know that,” Nunes said as he questioned acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, “it's easy to understand the president's desire to get to the bottom of this corruption and discover exactly what happened in the 2016 election.”

Much of this made no sense, unless you were deeply immersed in the alternative realty of Fox News. As the Atlantic's David Frum observed, “To those not immersed in the fantasy franchise, people like Devin Nunes sound like crazy people. Which in turn, of course, only drives them crazier.”

In a world where politicians still retained the capacity for shame, Nunes might have been chagrined by Fiona Hill’s rebuke. It was as close as we have come to the moment when Army counsel Joseph Welch asked Sen. Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?”

But shame requires a shared moral universe, and Nunes did not blush.