KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
In his 14 years as a member of the House of Representatives, Devin Nunes has never had a bigger spotlight on himself than right now. Nunes as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. And he's leading that committee's investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 election. Last week's open hearing wasn't the most flattering for the Trump administration. Now, Nunes has canceled the sessions that were supposed to follow.
After that and some opaque maneuvering that included a secret late night trip to the White House, Democrats on the Intel Committee are calling for Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia investigations. So far, he has refused. The attention is a big change for the once low-key congressman from rural California. Carla Marinucci has been writing about Nunes for years. She's a senior writer for Politico based here in California.
CARLA MARINUCCI: He's an American success story in politics in a way. I mean, he did - he raised cattle as a teenager. He saved his money. He bought farmlands with his brother. He got into elected office at age 23 on a community college board he attended. And by the late 20s, he was in Congress.
He has been mentored by John Boehner, the former speaker. And that, I think, is one of the places that has made the difference with him because Boehner appointed him to the Intelligence Committee. He became the chairman under Boehner. And he has kept that gavel when Speaker Ryan has taken over.
MCEVERS: Tell us about the district that Nunes represents, California's 22nd District.
MARINUCCI: Yeah. I mean, the 22nd District is one of the most conservative places in the state of California. It's got a 10-point Republican advantage here. There's a lot of farmers. You're talking about a conservative region where water is a big issue and where federal regulation is a big issue. And that is where Nunes has had his success in California politics.
MCEVERS: And now, of course, Democrats are calling for him to step down as head of the House Intelligence Committee, saying he can't conduct a truly independent investigation of the Trump team's communications with Russia. What is his relationship with Trump now?
MARINUCCI: Nunes has been somebody who has - is looking to Trump for help on issues in California, one of them being water. This has been one of his key issues ever since he's been in politics. He's battled with people like Dianne Feinstein. He has talked about global warming being nonsense. And he's talked about the California drought being manmade, saying there's plenty of water. Trump has already talked about infrastructure, dam building in California.
And I think right there is the crux of Devin Nunes' loyalty to Donald Trump. When you're talking about infrastructure issues, water storage and dams building, that is the place where Devin Nunes has staked a claim for a long time in California politics. And Trump has promised to help out there.
MCEVERS: How do his constituents feel about what he's doing on the House Intelligence Committee?
MARINUCCI: Look. From his past campaigns in 2016, he ran virtually unopposed, had two-thirds of the vote. He's considered to be untouchable in California. And for a Republican in California, that is not an easy task. At this point, it's unknown what kind of effect it's having locally. But in Tulare County, the place where he grew up, where his family has three generations of roots set down, it will be very surprising, I think, if Devin Nunes has suffered much in popularity polls.
MCEVERS: Do you think he will eventually step down or he will hold firm?
MARINUCCI: This is a guy who in his political career has been resolute on issues that matter to him. And on this one, it appears he wants to hold firm. It's not the first time he's taken on an issue and has been in the spotlight. There's been other issues. He was a lead player in pushing for investigation into Benghazi. And the career shows that he's been kind of a bulldog. And a lot of people think that's where he'll stay.
MCEVERS: Carla Marinucci, senior writer for Politico, thanks so much.
MARINUCCI: Thanks for having me.
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