House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes stepped aside Thursday as the overseer of the committee’s investigation into Russian meddling with the 2016 election. He had to do so.
But this striking move by the California Republican does not end the crisis created by the congressman and his chief enabler, House Speaker Paul Ryan. The committee’s inquiry has been tainted. And the need for an independent investigation remains.
The crisis developed when Nunes abandoned his oversight duties and made himself a political pawn of the Trump administration. After his secret visit to the White House grounds, his closed-door meeting with the president, and clumsy attempts to make excuses for Trump’s unfounded claim that President Obama ordered politically motivated wiretapping of Trump Tower, Nunes had lost all credibility.
But Nunes has never been anything more than the face of the crisis.
At the center of the predicament is the man who empowered Nunes, who refused to hold Nunes to account even as things began to spin out of control, and who continues to defend Nunes: Paul Ryan.
When Nunes declared war on the system of checks and balances, and sought to make his committee an extension of the Trump White House, Ryan had an immediate duty to remove the errant congressman as chairman. He has to do so in order to make it clear that the House respects the separation of powers as outlined in the Constitution.
Ryan did not show that respect for the Constitution. And he has yet to do so.
This is a serious matter.
Because of his leadership role, the Wisconsin Republican has a much higher duty than Nunes to maintain the separation of powers. Ryan swears the same oath that Nunes does to uphold the Constitution. But, as House speaker, he is more responsible than anyone in the whole of the government for upholding the system of checks and balances. Trump has no interest in the separation of powers, unless it serves him. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has, with his rubber-stamping of Trump’s cabinet picks, shown himself to be nothing more than a branch manager for the White House.
Ryan’s duty has always been clear.
Unfortunately, he has shown no interest in performing that duty.
As the scandal surrounding Nunes developed, Ryan covered for the chairman—who is now the subject of a House Ethics Committee inquiry into allegations that, in his rush to defend Trump, Nunes released classified information. The speaker kept saying that the scandal-plagued congressman had his trust. Even now, Ryan says Nunes “continues to have that trust.” The speaker simply says that it is “clear that this [Ethics Committee inquiry] would be a distraction for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election.”