CAPITOL HILL - U.S. Representative Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has been a leading voice defending President Donald Trump throughout the congressional Democrats' impeachment inquiry.
But the 300-page impeachment report released Tuesday by the Democratic majority on the Intelligence Committee revealed that the California congressman has connections to the Trump-Ukraine scandal that have raised questions about his own official conduct.
House Democrats obtained phone records of Nunes' calls with Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who Democratic investigators say led a shadow effort to subvert U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine in a manner that would benefit the president's own political interests in the 2020 election campaign.
Logs show five calls between Giuliani and Nunes on April 10, 2019. Two of those were missed calls and the longest was almost 3 minutes in duration. The phone calls occurred at a time when Giuliani has been accused of waging a smear campaign to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch as part of an effort to clear the way for pressuring the Ukrainian government to announce investigations of one of Trump's leading political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter.
The previously undisclosed phone records provided to the committee by AT&T and Verizon also showed Nunes spoke at least four times with Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian American associate of Giuliani who has been indicted on charges of campaign finance violations. Parnas allegedly was part of Giuliani's efforts to dig up damaging information on the Bidens. Parnas has pleaded not guilty to the campaign finance charges.
The phone calls raised suspicions among House Democrats that Nunes was working behind the scenes to help the president.
Nunes: Calls not suspicious
Nunes told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday that the timing of his calls with Giuliani, whom he has known for some time, should not be considered suspicious and were more focused on former special counsel Robert Mueller and his report on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Asked about his contact with Parnas, Nunes said he found it unlikely he would be taking calls from random people.
"l haven't gone through all my phone records," Nunes told Fox News. "I don't really recall that name, I remember that name now because he's been indicted."
According to the phone records in the impeachment report, Nunes spoke with Parnas at least four times on April 12, 2019, including one 8-minute phone call.
Parnas has alleged through his attorney that Nunes used taxpayer funds for official travel to Vienna in 2018 to meet with former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, according to CNN reports. Parnas' lawyer has also said his client is willing to testify that he met with a Nunes aide and Giuliani to discuss Biden.
Nunes has called those allegations "fake." He has filed a lawsuit against CNN for its reporting on his conversations with Parnas and has threatened internet publication The Daily Beast with similar litigation.
"It's not unusual for members of Congress to have contact with persons in foreign countries," said Todd Belt, professor and political management program director at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.
Members of Congress routinely coordinate official trips through the State Department to learn more about areas receiving aid from the United States. "But this sort of freelance thing is pretty unusual," Belt said.
Nunes is no stranger to defending his close relationship with the Trump White House.
In 2017, during his time as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he investigated Trump's tweeted claims that the Obama administration had him "wiretapped" in Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Reporters discovered Nunes was coordinating with White House officials to release classified information supporting that allegation.
Nunes later told reporters the incidental collection of intelligence was legal, part of routine surveillance of Trump campaign officials in discussion with foreign agents after the election.
Nunes, however, was forced to recuse himself from the House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and temporarily relinquish his chairmanship because of his apparent conflict of interest. A House Ethics Committee investigation subsequently cleared him.
Belt said Nunes has a "really cozy relationship with the president."
Relevance to impeachment inquiry
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told reporters Tuesday that he would reserve comment on Nunes but said it was "deeply concerning" a member of Congress could be complicit in behind-the-scenes efforts to assist the president at the public's expense.
"There's a lot more to learn about that, and I don't want to state that that's an unequivocal fact," Schiff said. "Our focus is on the president's conduct first and foremost. It may be the role of others to evaluate the conduct of members of Congress."
Belt noted Democrats would have to prioritize their investigations, focusing on the impeachment investigation into Trump rather than the allegations against Nunes.
"The fact that they're trying to move ahead as fast as possible really doesn't give them much, you know, wiggle room to sort of revisit this," he said.
During the impeachment inquiry hearings, Nunes has consistently pushed the unfounded theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election, arguing that the interference gave Trump a good reason to suspect the country's motives and temporarily withhold military aid.
That theory has been rejected by U.S. intelligence agencies, who conclusively found Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, another member of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted: "If Devin Nunes was using taxpayer money to do 'political errands' in Vienna for his puppeteer, Donald Trump, an ethics investigation should be initiated and he should be required to reimburse the taxpayers."
What's next for Nunes?
The House Committee on Ethics considers cases of misconduct by members of Congress and could likely end up weighing in on this matter. Unlike other House committees, membership is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans. This ensures that each party has veto power over disciplinary action of a member of Congress.
The committee cleared Nunes of wrongdoing in the 2017 wiretapping controversy.
Members of Congress facing ethics investigations often resign to save political face. The committee can refer the matter to a full House floor vote, censuring or expelling the member of Congress, although such action is extremely rare.