For a man who doesn’t like the spotlight, the chairman of the House intelligence committee Devin Nunes has secured himself a place in it.
Nunes, a Republican congressman from the farmlands of central California, on Wednesday held back-to-back news conferences to discuss typically secret information about U.S. spy agencies intercepting communications of people on President Donald Trump’s team. It appeared to be an effort coordinated with the White House that Mr. Trump later used to claim vindication for baseless accusations about wiretapping.
The move helped solidify Nunes as a polarizing figure and raised fresh questions about whether his committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election can truly be independent and bipartisan. Rep. Adam Schiff, also of California and the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, thinks that bipartisan ship has sailed.
“A credible investigation cannot be conducted this way,” Schiff said.
Until recently, Nunes — the soft-spoken 43-year-old dubbed a “normal dad” by friends — was hardly a fixture on the national news circuit. Now he’s at the helm of one of two congressional probes into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 campaign and the murky web of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia. It’s a potentially sprawling enterprise that spans continents, plumbs spycraft and is dominating international headlines.
He’s a long way from raising cattle.
Nunes is a third-generation Portuguese-American, and he grew up working on his family’s dairy farm. As a teenager, he raised cattle and saved money to buy farmland with his brother, according to his congressional biography. He has degrees in agriculture and keeps his hand in farming through investment in two California wineries run by a friend he met through his California Polytechnic State University alumni network.
Rep. David Valadao, a Republican congressman from a district next to Nunes’ and fellow dairyman, said Nunes takes his job as congressman seriously. But, he said, aside from his work, “he’s a normal dad” to three young daughters.
“All I wanted to be was a dairy farmer,” Nunes told a group of high school students as he campaigned for his seat in Congress in 2002, according to an article in the Fresno Bee.
His education and childhood aspiration suited his political ambitions. Like many politicians from California’s interior farm belt, Nunes was well-versed in agriculture and the water supply that supports it.
Nunes’ first entree into politics was as a member of a local community college board. He ran for Congress in 1998 and lost the primary. In 2001, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to a California post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He was only 28 when he won a hotly contested congressional seat, beating his Republican competitors in the 2002 primary by appealing to the concerns of ranchers and dairymen in his solidly conservative district.
Tom Barcellos, a Tulare County, California, dairy producer who has known Nunes since childhood, said Nunes focused early on politics, without being showy.
“He knew what he wanted and he did his research, and he didn’t blow a lot of smoke,” Barcellos said.
Nunes served on the Agriculture Committee during his first term, but quickly landed a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, one of Congress’ most influential panels.
He was spotted by Republican leaders as a party loyalist, and he was named to a leadership position during his first term.
He vied for the chairmanship of the intelligence committee in 2014. He proved a better fundraiser than more senior competitors, bringing in far more money for his party. While many congressional committee leadership positions are based on seniority, the House intelligence committee leadership was chosen by then-House Speaker John Boehner.
Nunes has suggested he pursued the intelligence committee post because it would be good for his constituents. Intelligence can play a key role in trade negotiations, he said, although it is only a sliver of the intelligence agencies’ missions.
“The intelligence committee — that’s a committee that I call the tip of the spear, because without national security it’s tough to keep those trade routes open,” Nunes said in a 2014 interview with the Tulare Advance-Register.
Until now, much of Nunes’ intelligence committee work has been focused on investigations into NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the Iran nuclear deal, Hillary Clinton’s emails and the placement of a Defense Department intelligence center.
The congressman made a push to have the center built on The Azores, a group of islands 800 miles off the coast of Portugal, a proposal that was popular among the valley’s many dairy producers of Portuguese descent. The department ultimately chose a site in the U.K.
Nunes’ actions this week have raised more questions about his independence and ability to lead a credible investigation.
On Wednesday morning, Nunes told reporters that a secret source showed him intelligence reports that prove communications of the president’s transition team were swept up in legal U.S. surveillance activity.
After Nunes spoke to reporters on Capitol Hill, he went to the White House to tell the President and spoke to reporters again.
Only after these other briefings did Nunes share what he had learned with Schiff — his co-pilot on the House investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible ties between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. He apologized Thursday to Schiff and other Democrats on the committee. His office said the information he disclosed Tuesday was not classified.
“It was a judgment call on my part,” Nunes told reporters later Thursday morning. “Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the wrong decision.”
Last month, the White House enlisted him to push back on a news article it didn’t like about Trump associates’ ties to Russia. The congressman has said he did nothing improper when he reached out to a reporter.
Nunes said the information on the Trump team was collected in November, December and January, the period after the election when Mr. Trump was holding calls with foreign leaders, interviewing potential Cabinet secretaries and beginning to sketch out administration policy. He said the monitored material was “widely disseminated” in intelligence reports.
Asked whether he believed the transition team had been spied on, Nunes said: “It all depends on one’s definition of spying.”
Nunes did not identify any of the Trump associates he said were “unmasked,” but they are believed to include Michael Flynn, who was fired as White House national security adviser after misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
Nunes said, “What I’ve read bothers me, and I think it should bother the president himself and his team.”