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The Plot Against the President
The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History
By Lee Smith
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“WELCOME,” said Congressman Devin Nunes, “to the last gasp of the Russian collusion conspiracy theory.”
It was July 24, 2019, the first time he’d come face to face with Special Counsel Robert Mueller III. And now their meeting was taking place in public, on Capitol Hill, in front of millions of people watching at home on television. At least half the audience had their hopes pinned on Mueller. The former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been appointed in May 2017 to continue the Bureau’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He represented what had once been the best chance of changing the outcome of the election by bringing down Trump.
What had stopped him was Nunes. The former chairman and now ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee had been studying the Russia-Trump collusion investigation for nearly two and a half years. Nunes had discovered, and produced evidence, that the FBI and Department of Justice had abused the resources of the federal government to spy on Donald J. Trump, his campaign, his transition team, and his presidency.
Nunes knew that the FBI had no collusion case against Trump. The FBI had no evidence, except for political dirt paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
With Nunes closing off avenues, Mueller had to adjust. He turned it into an obstruction investigation, which had lasted nearly two years until Attorney General William Barr had shut that down, too. Like Nunes, Barr understood that Mueller was running an operation, not an investigation.
On March 22, 2019, Mueller produced his final report. After spending more than $30 million and employing dozens of attorneys and FBI agents, the special counsel found no evidence that Trump or his associates had colluded with Russia. Nonetheless, Mueller’s devotees found hope in the report insinuating that the president might have obstructed justice. Democrats summoned him to testify before Congress in an effort to bring the report to life, a television reenactment that might with luck lead to Trump’s impeachment. After a long career in public service, the seventy-four-year-old Mueller’s last act was as a political mannequin.
He surely wasn’t there to answer real questions about the investigation, the questions that Nunes had been asking since March 2017: When did the investigation start? Based on what evidence? Under whose authority? What other US agencies or departments were involved? Which US governmental personnel had a hand in the operation? How high did it go? How many spies were sent against Trump’s presidential campaign?
Mueller brushed any probing questions aside. They weren’t, as he said repeatedly, “in his purview.” The special counsel stumbled over even friendly questions. He claimed ignorance of important investigative details. He appeared not to know much of what was in the report that carried his name.
Nunes read from a prepared statement:
In March 2017, Democrats on this committee said they had “more than circumstantial evidence” of collusion, but they couldn’t reveal it yet. Mr. Mueller was soon appointed, and they said he would find the collusion.
Then when no collusion was found in Mr. Mueller’s indictments, the Democrats said we’d find it in his final report.
Then when there was no collusion in the report, we were told Attorney General Barr was hiding it.
Then when it was clear Barr wasn’t hiding anything, we were told it will be revealed through a hearing with Mr. Mueller himself.
And now that Mr. Mueller is here, they are claiming that the collusion has actually been in his report all along, hidden in plain sight.
Mueller started impassively at Nunes as the congressman concluded his speech. “It’s time for the curtain to close on the Russia hoax,” said Nunes. “The conspiracy theory is dead.”
Nunes spoke the truth for those with ears to hear it. It was the American voter who chose Trump, not Putin. The efforts to undermine Trump’s candidacy, destroy his presidency, and criminalize political differences were also attacks on American institutions and the American public. No one had risked more to tell the truth than Nunes. His strange odyssey had started precisely two years before Mueller filed his final report.
On March 22, 2017, Nunes was on his way to the White House to tell Trump about what he’d seen. The chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) looked alarmed. What concerned him that afternoon wasn’t a hostile action taken by foreign adversaries, terrorists, or the intelligence services of a rogue nation-state; rather, it was something that American spies had done to Americans. Nunes had seen evidence of a plot against the president.
Earlier in the month, the recently inaugurated Trump had written on Twitter that his predecessor had spied on him: “Just found out that Obama had my wires tapped in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
Trump’s statements regularly touched off a firestorm. His opponents found cause to denounce his every utterance even as the same words rallied his supporters. But this was different. He’d accused the president of the United States of spying on a political campaign, his. It was unthinkable. Yet sources had shown Nunes that Barack Obama administration officials had asked for the identities of Trump transition team members to be unredacted from intelligence reports.
Typically, the identities—names, titles, and so on—of US citizens are redacted, i.e., “masked,” to protect their privacy rights. Unmasking is not illegal, and there are legitimate reasons to ask for the identity of an American to be unmasked. But Nunes had seen evidence of an extensive campaign of unmaskings, for no apparent purpose except to spy on the Trump team.
Nunes, wearing a blue pin-striped suit, approached a group of several dozen reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen assembled at the bottom of a staircase in the Capitol Hill Visitor Center. He stood at a narrow lectern with a dozen microphones to accommodate all the media. The event was carried live on several networks. He unfolded a prepared statement and began.
While I said there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower, I was concerned that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates. First, I recently confirmed on numerous occasions, the US intelligence community incidentally collected information about US citizens in the Trump transition. Details about US persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting. I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. Fourth and finally, I want to be clear, none of the surveillance was related to Russia or the investigation of Russian activities, or of the Trump team.
The Obama administration had unmasked the identities of Trump associates. The wide dissemination of information identifying them had increased the likelihood that it would be leaked to the media.
Nunes had touched on the essence of what would eventually be understood as the political operation to destroy Trump. It began in the winter of 2015–2016. It consisted of two components, intertwined.
One involved senior Obama officials from the US law enforcement and intelligence communities as well as the diplomatic corps. They had used electronic surveillance and confidential human sources to spy on and entrap the Trump team. They had leaked classified information to the press to portray Trump and his circle as compromised by hidden ties to the Russian government. That was a political espionage campaign, often conducted clandestinely.
The other component was the media campaign. The press had published leaks of classified intelligence as well as political dirt provided by Clinton operatives to build an echo chamber smearing Trump as a Russian agent.
The operation had had two separate legs: it was designed, first, to undermine his campaign; after Trump won, the operation continued, but now its goal was to bring down the president.
The House Intelligence Committee will thoroughly investigate surveillance and its subsequent dissemination to determine… who was aware of it? Why was it not disclosed to Congress? Who requested the additional unmasking? Whether anyone directed the intelligence community to focus on Trump associates. And whether any laws and regulations and procedures were violated.
When Nunes left Capitol Hill for the White House that afternoon, everything changed. He’d just begun to scratch the surface of a scandal that would split the country. The media attacks on him started immediately.
“Why are Republicans trusting Devin Nunes to be their oracle of truth?” asked MSNBC analyst Elise Jordan. “A former dairy farmer who House Intel staffers refer to as ‘Secret Agent Man,’ because he has no idea what’s going on.”
Roll Call’s David Hawkings dismissed him as a rube: “The match between his backstory and his prominence seems wholly incongruous, and helps underscore the perception that Nunes is cavalierly playing at a very high-stakes game while in way over his head.”
The “resistance” eventually targeted his family as well, with political operatives paid millions of dollars to destroy him. Nunes was no longer just a public figure, the representative from California’s Twenty-second Congressional District. He’d become, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, “a man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Crawdaddy’s is a large restaurant with a big horseshoe-shaped bar and live music at the end of Main Street in Visalia, California. Two years after Nunes’s journey began, I’m there with him and a group of his friends—Ray Appleton, a radio talk show host, and the Kapetan brothers—listening to the house band.
The lead singer, in a dark bob haircut, go-go boots, and a miniskirt, is belting out covers. The band’s led by another of the congressman’s buddies, the restaurant’s owner, Keith Korsgaden, on guitar. They’re good, say Nunes’s friends, all musicians.
During a pause in the music, a man with a graying beard in a black turtleneck walks up to the stage, has a quick word with the band, then turns to the audience. “This next one,” he says into the mike, pointing at Nunes, “is for you.” Nunes looks up from his plate and freezes. Was this another protestor, part of the camp that regularly denounces him at protests staged outside his local offices?
Keith rips into the first few licks of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and the singer tips his driving cap toward Nunes. “I was born,” he sings, “in a crossfire hurricane.”
A surprised smile passes across Nunes’s face, and he nods back. The crowd erupts in cheers.
“Crossfire Hurricane” is the name that the FBI gave to the investigation it opened on the Trump campaign. The probe was named not after the Stones’ 1968 classic but rather the 1986 Penny Marshall film Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
In the late-Cold-War-era comedy, a quirky bank officer played by Whoopi Goldberg comes to the aid of Jonathan Pryce, who plays a British spy being chased by the KGB.
The FBI’s code name alludes to the former British spy whose allegedly Russian-sourced reports documented the Trump team’s supposed ties to the Kremlin, ex–MI6 agent Christopher Steele.
Hired by Clinton campaign operatives to smear Trump, Steele is credited with authoring a thirty-five-page collection of memos, the “Steele Dossier,” that the FBI used to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to spy on Trump and his associates. Informants were also sent to spy on and entrap the Trump team.
The dirty tricks operation turned into an attempted coup after Trump’s election. Since he was elected without the consensus of the ruling party representing the coastal elite, Barack Obama’s intelligence chiefs, including CIA director John Brennan, FBI director James Comey, and FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, as well as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, believed that his election was illegitimate. It was permissible, they believed, to remove him from office.
They’d justify it by continuing the FBI’s investigation and expanding on the Clinton campaign’s dirty tricks operation contending that Trump was controlled by a foreign power, Russia.
Brennan initiated the coup with an official report produced by his handpicked team of analysts. Their January 2017 intelligence community assessment claimed that Russian president Vladimir Putin himself had interfered with the election to help Trump win.
Comey’s March 2017 congressional testimony set up the president for a series of traps intended to bring obstruction charges leading to Trump’s ouster. After Comey’s dismissal in May 2017, Mueller was named special counsel and inherited control of the FBI’s investigation and therefore the coup. His job was to fulfill Comey’s mission and continue the investigation until he could trap the president in an obstruction of justice charge.
The crowd at Crawdaddy’s understood that for two years, Nunes had been the only thing standing in the way of the coup called “Crossfire Hurricane.”
It’s early spring in Tulare, California, Nunes’s hometown. The snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada will soon melt and fill the Central Valley with the water that makes it the world’s most fertile agricultural region. “It’s the breadbasket of the solar system,” Nunes says, smiling.
We’re driving by what used to be the Tagus Ranch, the 7,000-acre fruit farm that was the destination for thousands of migrants who fled the midwestern dust bowl for California in the 1930s. Much of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was set around Tulare. Nunes’s ancestors preceded the Oklahomans by decades, but even today some of his family members speak with that same drawl.
The Nunes family is originally from the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal consisting of a chain of islands 850 miles west of the Iberian Peninsula. “It’s a beautiful place but also a tough place to live,” says Nunes. “You never starve, but you never have a lot either.”
In the late nineteenth century, his ancestors left their small farms in the Azores for small farms in the San Joaquin Valley and helped settle the land. “The Azoreans are tough people,” says Nunes. “They have to be—living in the middle of the Atlantic, they’re isolated and know they have to count on themselves.”
The Nunes family was poor but always made it through, even through the depression. “My ninety-nine-year-old grandmother will tell you they had everything they needed,” says Nunes. “They had a small farm, and they were growing what they needed, and they survived.”
Nunes was born in Tulare on October 1, 1973, and grew up on the family farm. He attended Tulare Union High School, earned an associate degree at College of the Sequoias, then his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture at Cal Poly, San Louis Obispo, about a two-hour drive southwest from Tulare.
The congressman has the self-deprecating humor of a Jimmy Stewart character. Tall at six feet, one inch, a family man, and slow to anger, Nunes is relentless in pursuit. “I raised cattle as a teenager,” he says. “My father broke away from the family farm and started his own business—he was a sharecropper. My mother kept the books. He encouraged us to get out on my own, so my brother, Anthony, and I started a harvesting business. I bought my own farm and tended row crops while I was still working on the family’s farm.”
He later sold the farm and used the profits to invest in Alpha Omega, a maker of world-class wines in Napa Valley.
In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed him California state director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development section. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, promising to take on environmentalists who wanted to divert water into the ocean and choke the soil.
Chance rules farm life. Contingency drives the luckless off the land and shapes the stalwart. Farmers are hard not by nature but to weather the nature that determines their fate. If it rains, your crops grow; if it rains too much, they rot; if it doesn’t rain, you starve. It is a career of black and white; things are, or they are not.
Nunes says that sensibility shaped his understanding and actions during the last two years. The collusion narrative was nonsense, cover for something else that was going on. He read the terrain quickly.
What he had to learn along the way was how to manage a team in the midst of a crisis like no one had seen before—a coup against a US president.
Nunes assembled a number of distinct and complementary talents: former intelligence officials who knew how to find and identify evidence of corruption; lawyers deeply knowledgeable about esoteric congressional procedures; experts on the history of intelligence; a former DOJ national security prosecutor, Kash Patel, who knew the nature of the enemy—his former colleagues; his communications director, Jack Langer, who went on offense against the hostile press corps; and the late Damon Nelson, the HPSCI staff director, who kept the team together during its hardest times. They called their wide-ranging investigation of the myriad abuses and crimes committed by senior US officials “Objective Medusa.”
For nearly two years, Nunes’s team pulled at the threads of the operation and found widespread corruption at the top levels of the federal government. They had to press forward carefully to hold the ground they’d won. The rogue law enforcement and intelligence officials, Clinton operatives, Obama aides, and the press were waiting for them to make a mistake.
“Every time we took a shot,” says Nunes, “we had to hit them between the eyes.”
The Objective Medusa team rarely missed.
They discovered in October 2017 that the Steele Dossier had been funded by the Clinton campaign. A February 2018 report known as the “Nunes Memo” laid out how the dossier had been used as evidence to obtain the FISA.
The Objective Medusa team discovered the role played by DOJ official Bruce Ohr and his wife, Nellie, in pushing the anti-Trump operation.
Objective Medusa uncovered the role State Department officials played in the anti-Trump operation.
Nunes’s team won release of the text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and his mistress, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, that gave evidence of the extent and nature of the anti-Trump operation. They found that Strzok’s “insurance policy” text referred to something specific the FBI had done to obtain the spy warrant.
Objective Medusa investigators pushed to find out how many spies the intelligence community had sent after the Trump campaign.
They set up a congressional task force to widen the investigation into the corrupt FBI investigators who had tried to frame Trump.
Finally, they asked the president to declassify federal law enforcement documents giving further evidence of Deep State corruption.
In giving their full accounting of the abuses and crimes committed during the FBI’s investigation of Trump, Nunes and his team returned the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) to its origins: investigating the abuses and possible crimes committed by American spies.
“The committee started in 1977,” says Nunes’s communications director, Jack Langer. “The House of Representatives passed a resolution to set up a committee monitoring the intelligence community in the wake of widespread abuses. The CIA, FBI, NSA, and others were spying on Americans.”
In 1975, two congressional investigatory panels were tasked to look into allegations of intelligence community (IC) abuses: the Church Committee, led by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, and the Pike Committee, chaired by Representative Otis Pike of New York. The two panels established permanent committees in both houses that would be responsible for constitutional oversight of the US intelligence community: the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and HPSCI.
“It was a pretty quiet committee before the 2016 elections,” says Langer. Much of HPSCI’s work involves authorizing spending for the intelligence community and providing it with necessary support and assistance. “The public wasn’t really following what we do, and if the press had questions for us, we usually couldn’t comment, since most of our work is classified.”
Nunes and his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Adam Schiff, worked well together the last two years of the Obama administration. As late as 2016, the two said good things about each other on the House floor. That changed when Trump was elected and Schiff lost his bearings.
Nunes’s March 2017 trip to tell the White House he’d seen evidence of spying on the Trump team was the opening move in a protracted struggle to bring the truth to light.
I’ve asked Nunes several times if he ever thought of walking away and just leaving the whole thing alone for someone else to deal with. “No,” he says. “Never. Not once. I knew the more times they came after me, the more they hit me, I knew that I was right over the target.”
Lots of people know they’re right, but not everyone is willing to pay the price for it.
“What happens if you don’t do the right thing?” says Nunes. “I wasn’t raised that way. How do you look yourself in the mirror? How do you explain to yourself five, ten years down the road that you could have done something but you didn’t?”
This book is an effort to present the known, as well as previously unreported, details in the anti-Trump operation. The basic outline of the story, however, is shockingly simple. Hillary Clinton’s campaign used political operatives and dirty cops to frame her opponent. When she lost, Obama officials employed the resources of the federal government to try to topple President Trump.
What readers may find surprising in this account is the extent of the role of the press. The media weren’t simply partisan or lazy or complicit—they have been an integral component of both legs of the operation from the beginning until the present. All in all, it is a tragic story about criminality, corruption, and a conspiracy of lies at the highest levels of important US institutions that were designed to keep the public safe, such as the FBI, and free, such as the press. But there is another story running parallel to that account, and that is a story about a small handful of Americans, public servants, who stood up, assumed responsibility, and did the right thing at a crucial time.
“If it weren’t for eight people,” Patel tells me over a beer one snowy evening in Washington, “no one would know what happened.”
The Objective Medusa team was outgunned by a confederation with unlimited financial resources and far superior numbers: the national security bureaucracy, political operatives, and the majority of the press. Still, they brought the truth to light. This story credits them for their actions and courage and, I hope, may give some readers cause for optimism in what looks like a dark moment in our history and even inspire others.
To tell that story, for nearly two years I spoke with Nunes, Patel, Langer, and other Objective Medusa investigators who could not speak on the record. What they accomplished together speaks for all of them: they uncovered the biggest political scandal in American history.
ENEMIES OF THE STATE
DEVIN NUNES and Kash Patel dispute the FBI’s claims that the Trump investigation began on July 31, 2016. “We actually think it began in late 2015, early 2016,” says Nunes.
It’s winter 2019, and I’m sitting in a sushi restaurant in downtown Washington with the congressman and Kashyap “Kash” Patel, the former DOJ prosecutor who led much of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the FBI’s handling of the Trump-Russia probe.
An athletically built thirty-nine-year-old with a dark, close-cropped beard, Patel was born to Indian parents who had moved from Africa, Uganda, and Tanzania, to Jackson Heights, Queens, a New York City melting pot of Indian, Asian, Latin American, and African immigrants. After graduating from the University of Richmond, he went to law school in New York. He moved to Miami and became a public defender before taking a job in Washington.
“I was a terrorism prosecutor at Main Justice,” says Patel, referring to DOJ headquarters. “It was a great place, a dream job, going after bad guys with great colleagues. Running those counterterrorism operations gave me a profound respect and love for the department and the FBI.”
During his time at DOJ, Patel also served as a civilian in the military at Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). “I worked alongside our Tier 1 special forces community conducting global targeting operations,” he says. “It was one of the greatest honors of my career.”
At Main Justice, he worked with many of the same people he would come to investigate as part of Nunes’s team. After spending nearly two years investigating the origins of the Russia collusion investigation, Patel agrees that the anti-Trump operation began in winter 2015–2016.
“January 2016,” says Patel, “is when Glenn Simpson, Christopher Steele, and Bruce Ohr start speaking together about a bunch of things they’re up to.” Their business concerns were related to Russia and Trump.
Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal
- On Sale
- Oct 27, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Center Street