Trump’s ultimate yes man: how Devin Nunes embraced the role he was long accused of playing
For the first and perhaps the only time in his pugnacious political career, the California congressman and noted Trump apologist Devin Nunes is inspiring some kind of unanimity across party lines.
When news broke on Monday that Nunes was retiring from Congress to become chief executive of the fledgling Trump Media & Technology Group, nobody on the left or the right doubted he’d landed where he belonged. After 19 years as a reliably rock-ribbed Republican legislator, Nunes told his supporters that he wasn’t giving up on fighting his political enemies, just “pursuing it by other means” – and for once those enemies took him at his word.
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Even Kevin McCarthy, the top-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives and a fellow Californian, failed to raise any hackles when he said in a statement that nobody was better prepared than Nunes to lead an alternative to America’s tech and media giants. Nunes, after all, has spent years filing lawsuits against Twitter, the Washington Post, and a clutch of other media companies that he, and Trump, consider to be part of a “propaganda machine” for the Democrats.
In many ways, Nunes is embracing the role his detractors have long accused him of playing, as Trump’s ultimate yes man. Early in the Trump presidency, leading Democrats fumed that he was walking away from his grave responsibilities as chair of the House intelligence committee to be Trump’s “stooge” and “fixer”. Now, though, he is walking away from Congress to serve Trump, without pretending that anything else is at stake.
Both sides also broadly agree that Nunes’s surprise career move is a sign of the times. A generation ago, no politician of either party would have given up on the prospect of chairing the House ways and means committee, a job that would have been Nunes’s for the taking if the Republicans were to win next year’s congressional midterms. The position is often described as the best in Washington, because of the sweeping power it grants over a wide range of policy issues.
Nunes, however, appears to have calculated that in today’s Republican party the real power lies not in committee but in proximity to the former president, who remains the GOP’s undisputed kingmaker and may harbor ambitions to be more than that as the 2024 presidential election draws closer.
Nunes went out his way, while intelligence committee chair, to clear Trump of accusations of collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign and promptly turned around to investigate the FBI’s reasons for looking into the matter in the first place. Trump rewarded him with a presidential Medal of Freedom, praising his “fortitude to take on the media, the FBI, the intelligence community, the Democrat party, foreign spies, and the full power of the Deep State”.
Like the man he is going to work for, Nunes has made a career out of divisiveness
Nunes, 48, is in many ways a poster child for the notion that, in today’s politics, extreme partisanship pays. While his unwavering allegiance to Trump and frequent spouting of freewheeling conspiracy theories caused his popularity in the agricultural district he represents in California’s Central Valley to nosedive – his margin of victory plummeted from 35 percentage points in 2016 to single digits in 2018 and 2020 – his Trump bona fides have made him a formidable fundraiser.
Ahead of last year’s congressional race, he raised a whopping $26.8m, the fourth-largest haul of any House member, and he used much of that money to outspend his spirited Democratic challenger, Phil Arballo, by a margin of four to one.
Like the man he is going to work for, Nunes has made a career out of divisiveness. He slams the Democrats as socialists and also as the party of the capitalist elite and doesn’t blink at the contradiction. A sampling of recent media appearances, many of them on his own podcast, has him accusing China of being “behind” the Covid-19 pandemic, lambasting the National Security Agency for mounting what he claims to be a political witch hunt against Republicans, and belittling Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as mere “avatars” for Barack Obama.
Some of that divisiveness, and the chaos that often erupts in its wake, is likely to greet him as he starts his new job. Two financial regulatory agencies are already investigating a $1.25bn business deal to take the Trump Media & Technology Group public. Nunes and Trump are spoiling for fights with Twitter, which banned the former president from its site in the wake of the 6 January Capitol riot, and a number of other social media platforms they accuse of censoring free speech.
That accusation is not without irony for Nunes, who has attempted to silence two detractors on Twitter with the spoof handles @DevinNunesCow and @DevinNunesMom. In a widely ridiculed 2019 lawsuit, he demanded $250m in damages from Twitter and the people behind the handles because, he said, they’d meant to cause him “immense pain”.
In California’s 22nd congressional district, the news of Nunes’ departure caused little detectable dismay among his supporters and was greeted by his detractors with both relief and frustration (relief because they say that he has long since placed his political ambitions above the interests of his constituents, frustration because local Democrats believed they had a decent shot at unseating him next year).
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Nunes, his 2020 challenger Arballo tweeted, “is fleeing from Congress at the end of the month because he would rather cash out and take a cushy gig from Trump than face our movement in a tough reelection campaign.”
With California, and the rest of the country, redrawing district maps in the wake of the latest US census, Nunes was heading into a significantly tougher electoral environment. According to the latest provisional map, the 22nd would flip from one that voted to reelect Trump by five percentage points last year to one that voted for Biden by nine points.
Nunes had some options if he’d chosen to fight for reelection, since California law does not oblige candidates for office to live in their districts. He could have challenged a Republican incumbent in an adjacent district or contested an open seat further away.
Instead, Nunes has responded to the siren call of a man who once flattered him into thinking he “may someday be recognized as a Great American Hero”. Trump’s business ventures have rarely ended happily for those he has roped into helping run them, but his political fortunes have yet to run dry.