The day after Donald Trump fired him, Michael Flynn had no friends in Washington but one: Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee.
Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had been laid low before. In 2014, the heads of US intelligence and Pentagon intelligence pushed Flynn out. His relationship with the US intelligence agencies never quite recovered. Flynn’s subsequent penchant for inflammatory, erratic and even bigoted statements left few, particularly in security circles, willing to defend him.
The exception to that rule was Nunes.
The now ex-national security adviser was “a soldier, not a politician”, Nunes said following Flynn’s downfall.
Even the White House was calling Flynn a liar. It attributed his firing to Flynn misleading Vice-President Mike Pence over Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador. But if Flynn had made any mistake, Nunes suggested, it was in being too pure for politics.
“Washington DC can be a rough town for honorable people,” Nunes said, adding that Flynn “deserves America’s gratitude and respect for dedicating so much of his life to strengthening our national security”.
Nunes’s affinity for Flynn has become an underappreciated subplot of a scandal that has now consumed the congressman’s own political fortunes. Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee investigating Trump’s alleged ties to Russia – an allegation in which Flynn plays a substantial role – is now under fire for what his Democratic colleagues charge is collusion with the White House to obstruct the inquiry.
In the hours before Trump fired Flynn, Nunes, a member of Trump’s national security transition team, fanned out to deny that Flynn had done anything wrong.
He told Bloomberg news, “It just seems like there’s a lot of nothing there.” Flynn was a “change agent” in intelligence, Nunes said. Those leaking against Flynn, Nunes said, using a favored Trump locution, “want the swamp to remain”. Nunes told Fox’s Neil Cavuto that Flynn was “probably the best intelligence officer of his generation”.
Yet Flynn is now seeking an immunity deal to testify before Nunes’s inquiry and others. Jack Langer, a spokesman for Nunes, confirmed on Friday that the committee had had a “preliminary conversation” with Flynn’s attorney to discuss Flynn speaking to the committee.
“The discussions did not include immunity or other possible conditions for his appearance,” Langer said.
Nunes and Flynn’s own professional intersection even plays a role in Nunes’s corner of the controversy. One of the White House officials who aided Nunes in accessing classified intelligence forming the basis of Nunes’s allegation that Trump officials’ identities were improperly disseminated in surveillance intercepts is Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former Flynn deputy on the NSC and DIA whom Flynn’s successor, HR McMaster, unsuccessfully sought to oust.
Since the inquiry began, Nunes has steered it away from the central question of Trump associates’ ties to Russia and toward the ancillary question of potential leaks of classified information against Trump’s team – the focus that Trump himself desires. Central to Nunes’s maneuver has been an emphasis on what he considers an injustice done to Flynn: the exposure of his contacts with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
Ahead of the explosive 20 March public hearing Nunes held, the intelligence committee chairman told Fox News: “I think the concern that the Trump administration has is, you know, were they actually using surveillance activities to know what they were up to, because we know that that happened with General Flynn. We know that his name was unmasked and we know that it was leaked out to the press.”
Nunes and committee Republicans repeatedly pressed the FBI director, James Comey, and NSA director, Mike Rogers, on leaks to the press about Flynn. Nunes asked Comey if “unauthorized disclosure of Fisa-derived information to the press” would be a crime, a reference to the intercept of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations.
Afterward, Nunes again referred to Flynn in batting back criticism of his focus. “There’s been one crime that has been committed, and that is the leaking of someone’s name,” Nunes told reporters.
Along with his fellow committee Republicans, Nunes warned Comey and Rogers that the leak of Flynn’s name was disinclining them to reauthorize the NSA and FBI’s central 2017 legislative priority: the renewal of an expiring NSA surveillance authority. The Republicans told Comey and Rogers that renewing the legal provision was “in jeopardy”, in Trey Gowdy’s words, absent a leak crackdown at the intelligence agencies, a move that would benefit Trump.
Comey and Rogers had to remind the House Republicans who oversee surveillance that the specific authority – which the GOP supported even after Edward Snowden revealed its privacy implications on millions of Americans – was unrelated to their concern about Flynn.
Flynn’s political persona after his firing from the DIA was a gift to Republicans. He portrayed himself as a martyr, cashiered by a dishonorable Obama administration for saying that Obama was soft on terror. With stars on his shoulders, Flynn’s utility to the GOP accelerated after he implied Hillary Clinton was a criminal. (“When you are given immunity, that means you probably committed a crime,” Flynn said last year of Clinton’s aides.)
Toward the end of his opening statement at the 20 March hearing, Nunes encouraged “anyone who has information about these topics to come forward and speak to the House intelligence committee.”
The next evening, according to the New York Times, Nunes received a call from his unidentified source, leading him to the White House, where he reviewed surveillance-relevant information compiled by Cohen-Watnick, Flynn’s former NSC and DIA aide. The next day, he revealed it in public, implying that he was alerting the White House to its existence.