Senate

Nunes retirement move seen as sign of power shift in GOP

Rep. Devin Nunes’s (R-Calif.) announcement this week that he’ll step down from Congress to become the chief executive of former President Trump’s new media and technology company is a sign of where power truly lies in the GOP, even if the party wins the House majority next year.

Nunes would have been poised, if the GOP took back the House majority, to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most coveted jobs in Congress with influence over tax, health care and social safety net policy.

But in today’s GOP, staying close to Trump may be the more powerful post.

Nunes likely would have faced a bumpy road in winning reelection to the House because of redistricting. California is losing a House seat, and a recent draft map from the commission drawing new lines would have split his safe GOP district and made a new one more favorable to Democrats.

Instead of dealing with a reelection race in the hopes of guiding legislation through what the GOP hopes will be a Republican House in 2023, Nunes is securing a top spot in Trump’s orbit.

The political trajectory of Nunes, who was first elected to the House in 2002, is a distillation of how the GOP has evolved under Trump.

While former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was in power, Nunes openly clashed with conservative hard-liners who went on to form the House Freedom Caucus and once referred to them as “lemmings with suicide vests.”

Boehner later appointed Nunes as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in 2014. By 2017, Nunes was using his perch on the panel to defend Trump during the investigation into the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election.

Nunes held a press conference to announce that Trump or his associates may have been “incidentally” swept up in foreign surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies, and then met with Trump at the White House. The New York Times later reported that White House officials originally helped provide Nunes with the intelligence reports.

Nunes ultimately stepped back from the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian election interference after the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into whether he made unauthorized disclosures of classified information. The panel ultimately cleared Nunes several months later.

Nunes also served as one of Trump’s top defenders during the first impeachment inquiry in 2019 over the former president’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to launch an investigation into now-President Biden.

A report from Democrats on the Intelligence Committee later documented contact between Nunes and two of the key figures at the heart of the impeachment inquiry: Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney who was trying to work a back channel to pressure Ukrainian officials, as well as Lev Parnas, a Giuliani associate assisting with the effort.

Trump eventually awarded Nunes with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January before leaving office. The Trump White House said Nunes “had the fortitude to take on the media, the FBI, the Intelligence Community, the Democrat Party, foreign spies, and the full power of the Deep State.”

Yet Nunes’s defenses of Trump also made him a top target of Democrats.

Nunes’s reelection campaign last year was the third-most expensive House race of the 2020 cycle, with a combined $25 million spent between the incumbent and his Democratic challenger.

Most of that money came from Nunes, who spent a whopping $20.1 million to defeat his Democratic challenge by a little over 8 points — up from winning reelection by about 5 points in 2018.

An initial draft map from California’s redistricting commission unveiled last month would result in Nunes’s district becoming one that Trump won by 5 points to one Biden would have won by 9 points, according to an estimate from Dave Wasserman, a House elections analyst for the Cook Political Report. But the proposed map for the new congressional districts has not yet been finalized and could be subject to changes.

Nunes isn’t the first House Republican to forgo a potentially prominent role in Congress for a career in conservative media in the Trump era. After securing the House Oversight Committee gavel in 2015 and a top perch investigating the Obama administration, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) resigned six months into Trump’s term to join Fox News.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who helped craft the GOP’s tax cut law in 2017, maintained that the top spot on Ways and Means is a rewarding one because of its sweeping policy impact.

“I’m not certain of many things in life, but I’m certain of this: The best job in all of Washington is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, because you have the ability to improve the lives of every American. It is a highly sought-after role, and I can tell you from personal experience it is the highlight of your congressional career, no doubt,” Brady said.

“I see Devin’s opportunity as a very rare opportunity to bring competition and protection of free speech to the sphere of social media. That’s certainly needed in this country at this time, and it’s an issue that he’s just passionate about,” Brady added.

Naomi Jagoda contributed.

Tags Boehner Devin Nunes Donald Trump Donald Trump Jason Chaffetz Joe Biden John Boehner Kevin Brady Rudy Giuliani

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