‘Carrying water for Trump’ or ‘vindicated’? What the Mueller report means for Devin Nunes

Democrats working to oust Rep. Devin Nunes in 2020 will have to make their case without any help from Special Counsel Robert Mueller III.

Mueller did not name the Republican from Tulare in his redacted investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election despite speculation from Nunes’ critics that the congressman was under scrutiny in some way because of his close ties to President Donald Trump.

As recently as January, Nunes’ 2018 Democratic opponent Andrew Janz tweeted “It looks like prosecutors are investigating Devin Nunes regarding a secret meeting with convicted criminal Michael Flynn and others. We may soon discover why Nunes risked it all to cover up for Trump last year.”

The tweet linked to an article that reported Mueller was investigating a meeting that involved Nunes and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia.

If Mueller really was investigating the meeting, the prosecutor did not show his hand in public documents.

Democrats have named Nunes as one of their top targets for 2020. Janz last year used Nunes’ national reputation as a key Trump ally to raise more than $9 million and give Nunes his toughest challenge yet. Janz still lost by 5 percentage points in the Republican district.

Nunes has declared the Mueller investigation clears Trump of wrongdoing, but the congressman wants to turn the tables on the officials who launched it.

Nunes’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, he sent eight criminal referrals to Attorney General Bill Barr over DOJ officials he believes have acted improperly. Nunes has pushed to open investigations into former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign and aired concerns about what he claims are Democratic actors in the nation’s intelligence agencies

Republicans won’t have the power in the House to issue subpoenas until at least 2020 and Senate Republicans have not pursued the same lines of inquiry, at least publicly, which means most of the questions Nunes is raising will go unanswered.

That allows him to act as the foil to House Democrats such as Intelligence Chair Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank. It also cements his national persona as Trump’s ally.

“The same behavior that calls into question whether (Nunes) knows he’s in a third branch of government with oversight responsibilities is what works politically for him in terms of fundraising,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran GOP strategist based in Sacramento. Nunes raised $1.2 million in the first quarter of 2019.

Janz doubles down

Janz does not plan to challenge Nunes again, and Democrats have not identified the candidate they want to make a run at the Republican. On Monday, Janz declined to retract his criticism of Nunes, saying the congressman’s omission from the report was not necessarily a sign of Nunes’ innocence.

“Assuming Devin Nunes’ name wasn’t something that was redacted due to an ongoing investigation,” Janz said, “I can only assume Robert Mueller was deferring to Congress or the appropriate congressional committees (on) any investigation of a sitting member.”

Congress can always refer a future case to the Department of Justice, Janz added, if it believes one of its members did something illegal.

He hopes the House continues to look into Nunes’ conduct, particularly as a member of Trump’s transition team in early 2017. Nunes has used his power as a former House Intelligence Committee chairman to release a partisan memo describing the origins of the Mueller report and to request meetings with British officials about material covered in the investigation.

Janz, a Fresno County prosecutor, said the people of the 22nd District deserve to know why Nunes attempted to kill an investigation “which found Russian interference in our elections and 10 separate and specific instances where President Trump arguably obstructed justice.”

Nunes and other Republicans have also mischaracterized Mueller’s report, according to Janz, who said finding insufficient evidence is not equal to “total exoneration.”

Members of the Democratic party are preparing to move on from Mueller. They want to connect Nunes to Trump’s policies and focus, such as the 2017 Republican tax law and health care votes they feel are unpopular in the region.

“From raising taxes on millions of Californians to voting to raise health care costs while cutting benefits, voters will remember come Election Day that Nunes stands with special interests instead of Californians. Democrats will continue to call him out every step of the way for continuously carrying water for Trump instead of fighting for his constituents,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Andy Orellana in a statement to McClatchy.

But without new revelations in the Mueller report, or a Republican majority in the House, Democrats will mostly be using information in 2020 that was already known before 2018.

They might not need new info, said Mike Lynch, a longtime Democratic strategist in the San Joaquin Valley. Many voters already connect Nunes with Trump. Trump will almost certainly be on the ticket in 2020, which could boost some Democratic turnout against Nunes, Lynch said.

Overall, Lynch said the Mueller report likely wouldn’t make much of a difference in Nunes’ race, even if he had been mentioned. Issues like health care and agriculture are more important.

“I think you can count the number of people who would vote for or against Nunes based on the Mueller report on one hand,” he said.

Local Republicans react

Several conservatives in Nunes’ district had mixed reactions to Mueller’s report.

Clovis City Councilman Bob Whalen, a longtime Nunes supporter, has not yet read the Mueller report. He encouraged others to read it and plans to make time for it.

“I think it’s really important to take the time to review the Mueller report,” said Whalen, who is also a prosecutor and Janz’s supervisor. “It’s an important part of our history, and we’re living through it. We should each draw our own reasonable conclusions.”

But Whalen also cautioned local voters to beware of political spin during future campaign seasons. “There were some people who believed Devin had done something illegal. I don’t think they knew they were being manipulated, but it appears they were.”

Diane Pearce, a leader in Fresno County and City Republican Women Federated, read the Mueller investigation and concluded it “vindicated” Nunes, saying Democrats’ criticism of Nunes briefing the White House on investigations didn’t hold water.

“Democrats were outraged,” Pearce said. “But if the Democrats had done something similar under Obama, maybe this whole thing could have been avoided.”

Nunes took an almost celebratory tone on social media in the days following the release of the redacted report, openly mocking it and circling back to his own findings on the subject.

“As I said tonight with ⁦(Fox News host Sean Hannity), don’t waste your time reading (Mueller’s report),” he tweeted Thursday. “Instead, read a real report done by House Intel Committee Republicans — finished over a year ago — (it) cost ($30 million) less and doesn’t read like a really bad Russian spy novel!”

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.