Who Is Devin Nunes? House Intel Chair Behind Controversial FBI Memo House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is at the center of a political firestorm over the release of a memo critiquing FBI surveillance.
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Who Is Devin Nunes? A Look At The Man Behind The Memo

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Who Is Devin Nunes? A Look At The Man Behind The Memo

Who Is Devin Nunes? A Look At The Man Behind The Memo

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And last night, of course, House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes defended the release of that Republican memo on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEVIN NUNES: I didn't want to have to do this. But the sad part is that I have an obligation to the American people.

SIMON: For more than a year now, Mr. Nunes has been central to the Russia investigation. But his time in Washington, D.C., goes back more than a decade. NPR's Kelsey Snell has more on the man behind the memo.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: For most of his career, Devin Nunes was a relatively anonymous congressman. He represents a district in the Central Valley of California and spent his first several years in Congress pushing legislation to help the area's dairy industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NUNES: This has unanimous support across California - unanimous. Every dairy farmer in the state of California has sent letters to their congressman.

SNELL: But from the beginning, Nunes was close to power in Congress. His early alliances with rising conservative stars like Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan set him on a path to prominence that seemed to be heading in the direction of agriculture or taxes. He made national headlines back in 2013 when there was a government shutdown largely blamed on objections to Obamacare by the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Nunes was quoted as calling them a group of lemmings wearing suicide vests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NUNES: Well, it's not Tea Party caucus - not at all. It's a lemming caucus. It's guys who meet privately. They're always conspiring. It's mostly just about power. And it's just gotten us nowhere.

SNELL: That was from CNN. And that critique drew him closer to party leaders who were fighting back the rising populist tide in Washington. Nunes spent the next few years toiling away and waiting for his turn as chairman of the powerful House intelligence committee. He landed that spot in 2015 and dug into the scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.

During the 2016 campaign, he briefed Republican candidates on intelligence matters. One of them was Donald Trump, and the two grew close. After Election Day, the committee began to turn its attention to Russian interference in the election, a probe that continued after Nunes was appointed to the executive committee overseeing the Trump transition. That all started out fine. Listen to how Nunes' Democratic counterpart Adam Schiff talked about the inquiry in March of 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: The chairman and I are doing everything that we can to keep this investigation bipartisan or nonpartisan, to make sure that we follow the evidence, wherever it leads.

SNELL: But just a week later, Nunes has called reporters to the same spot where Schiff declared their bipartisanship. He was there to back up a claim that President Trump had made on Twitter - a claim that is still not backed up by evidence - that the Obama administration tapped the phones at Trump Tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NUNES: The administration, I don't think, is aware of this. So I'm going to make sure that I go over there and tell them what I know because it involves them.

SNELL: Nunes said the information came from an anonymous whistleblower. But what followed was a rush of accusations that Nunes was working with the White House. That was a turning point, even for some Republicans like Lindsey Graham. He spoke to NBC's "Today Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

LINDSEY GRAHAM: The problem that he's created is he's gone off on a lark by himself - sort of an Inspector Clouseau investigation here.

SNELL: And as Graham went on to say, it was more than a temporary problem. Nunes hadn't told his colleagues what he was looking into before he went to share it with the White House. And he never shared information to back up the claim. He was then forced to leave the helm of the Russia probe under the cloud of an ethics investigation. In December, after he was cleared of any wrongdoing, Washington was abuzz about a secret memo critical of the FBI. The lead author was Devin Nunes. Now he's in the middle of a political hurricane. And his early allies, McCarthy and Ryan, are standing by his side now as majority leader and speaker of the house. Just this week, Ryan defended Nunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: So he's focusing on keeping our country safe, focused on national security. I think what they're trying to do is just sidetrack us with some political game.

SNELL: And there are no signs that Nunes is going to leave his position of power atop the House intelligence committee any time soon. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

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