Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, was closer to the central figures in the Ukraine scandal than he let on, even as his committee investigated the matter, according to congressional findings and news reports.
A sweeping report from House Democrats indicated that Nunes and a top aide exchanged multiple phone calls, at key moments, with President Donald Trump’s allies who were digging up dirt in Ukraine about Trump’s political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden.
The new developments create a strange and unprecedented twist in which a sitting lawmaker, let alone the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, is embroiled in the very matter the committee is investigating. It’s unclear what role Nunes played – at the least, he’s a potential witness; at worst, he’s an active participant.
Phone records subpoenaed by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee indicate that Nunes was in contact with Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani and his associate Lev Parnas at a time when they were soliciting damaging information about Biden from Ukrainian officials.
House Democrats have also accused Giuliani of coordinating with Trump to pressure Ukraine’s president into announcing an investigation into Biden, which would help Trump’s 2020 campaign. Along the way, Giuliani and Nunes publicly promoted many of the debunked theories about Biden.
Nunes, a California Republican, was already fending off accusations from Democrats that he played a role in the scheme. And Parnas, through his attorney, previously told CNN that Nunes spoke directly with some of the Ukrainians, and that one of his senior aides, Derek Harvey, participated in strategy sessions with Giuliani.
Taken together, the revelations from the past few weeks make it clear that Nunes was much closer than previously known to Giuliani and Parnas, who are both under criminal investigation.
Nunes has disputed some claims about his ties to Ukrainians, specifically that he visited Vienna last year to meet a former Ukrainian prosecutor who offered dirt on the Bidens. Nunes denied meeting the ex-official, Viktor Shokin, in a defamation lawsuit he filed against CNN this week.
Phone calls and strategy sessions
Earlier this year, Giuliani held regular strategy sessions to discuss his Ukraine plans at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, according to Parnas’ lawyer Joseph Bondy.
These meetings included Parnas, conservative columnist John Solomon and Republican attorneys Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, CNN previously reported. Parnas said that Nunes aide Harvey occasionally attended, and that Parnas understood Harvey was there as Nunes’ proxy, Bondy told CNN.
Phone records disclosed in the Democratic report indicate that Parnas and Harvey had at least three phone calls in February, though the content of their conversations is unknown. This was the first official confirmation of a link between Parnas and Harvey.
The phone records also suggest that many who attended those meetings at Trump’s hotel remained in regular contact throughout the spring, when Solomon started publishing columns in The Hill containing conspiracy theories about the Bidens.
The phone records indicate that Nunes connected with Giuliani on April 10. That same week, the phone records show that Giuliani was also in touch with Parnas and Solomon, who had just published two new columns.
The Democratic report also highlighted a flurry of activity on April 12, when there were phone calls between a number of parties: Giuliani and an unidentified White House number, Parnas and Giuliani, Parnas and Solomon, and also Parnas and Nunes.
The records indicate that on one of those calls, Parnas and Nunes spoke for longer than eight minutes, though it’s still unknown what they discussed.
Nunes says he has never met Parnas, but played coy about the extent of their relationship.
“You know, it’s possible,” Nunes said Tuesday on Fox News, on whether he ever spoke to Parnas. “But I haven’t gone through all my phone records. I don’t really recall that name. You know, I remember the name now because he has been indicted… I will go back and check all my records, but it seems very unlikely that I would be taking calls from random people.”
One month after Nunes’ alleged calls with Parnas, Giuliani spoke with Harvey, according to phone records from May 8. That call happened as Giuliani was preparing to travel to Ukraine to potentially meet with Shokin and some of the officials who were peddling the questionable theories in Solomon’s columns. Giuliani nixed the trip after his plans were revealed in the press and Trump weighed in.
The Daily Beast also reported that another Parnas lawyer claimed that his client helped arrange meetings and phone calls for Nunes in Europe. That lawyer, Ed MacMahon, also said Harvey attended some of these overseas meetings, which were for Nunes’ investigative work. Harvey did not comment when reached by CNN for previous stories about Ukrainian meetings.
“If this story is correct, the Ranking Member (Nunes) may have actually been projecting and in fact he may be the fact witness if he is working with indicted individuals around our investigation,” Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California said at an impeachment hearing last month.
The Democratic report directly accused Nunes and the others of having these conversations, based on the records subpoenaed from Verizon and AT&T, which is the parent company of CNN. But the report did not disclose the actual phone numbers, only the duration and alleged participants.
Conspiracies take center stage
Many of Solomon’s columns included unsubstantiated claims that Biden abused his powers to protect his son’s position on the board of Burisma, and that the Ukrainian government meddled in the 2016 election to help Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Nearly all of these theories have been recanted, debunked or discredited by witnesses who testified in the impeachment inquiry. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, said “all the key elements” of the columns “were false.”
But that didn’t stop Nunes from repeating many of them at nearly every public hearing held by the House Intelligence Committee.
“The Democrats cooperated in Ukrainian election meddling and they defend Hunter Biden’s securing of a lavishly paid position with a corrupt Ukrainian company, all while his father served as vice president,” Nunes said at the first public impeachment hearing November 13.
After declaring the inquiry “a direct-to-TV sequel to the Russia collusion hoax” at another hearing, Nunes posed questions about Biden: “Why did Burisma hire Hunter Biden? And what did he do for them? And did his position impact any U.S. government actions under the Obama administration?”
The answers to Nunes’ queries have been readily available – while questions of ethics and judgment remain, no evidence has emerged implicating Biden in corruption or abusing his office.
The US intelligence community believes that some of the theories Nunes endorsed, especially that the Ukrainian government meddled in the 2016 election, actually originated from Russian operatives as part of an orchestrated disinformation campaign, CNN has reported.
For months, Giuliani fanned the flames on Fox News and in regular Twitter posts, where he accused Biden and other Democrats of crimes. Just this week, Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to meet with some of the same former officials, including Shokin, who peddled the theories about Biden in the first place.
What’s next for Nunes?
Nunes is no stranger to controversy. He was forced to step back from running the committee’s Russia inquiry in 2017 after he was caught coordinating with the White House to undermine the inquiry.
This time around, Nunes is dangerously close to the scandal yet again.
During the hearings, Nunes repeatedly chided Democrats because they allegedly “got campaign dirt from Ukrainians in the 2016 election.” Now his own interest in obtaining information from foreign sources is under scrutiny.
Republicans also used the House Intelligence Committee hearings to turn the tables on its Democratic chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff of California. They accused Schiff of coordinating with the US intelligence community whistleblower who first raised concerns about Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The whistleblower was in touch with committee staff, but not with any members, before filing the complaint.
Nunes maintains he didn’t do anything wrong and praised Giuliani for his exploits in Ukraine.
“It would be dereliction of duty for the president’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to not go to Ukraine to figure out what on earth were the Democrats doing in Ukraine, paying for dirt from Ukrainian officials to dirty up the Trump campaign in 2016,” Nunes said on Fox News last month. “It would also be dereliction of duty for me and my committee not to be meeting with Ukrainians.”
Federal prosecutors might see things differently. They’ve already indicted Parnas, who was arrested in October while boarding a flight to Vienna with a one-way ticket. He is accused of using straw donors to hide campaign contributions to a pro-Trump super PAC and of helping funnel foreign money into US state elections. He has pleaded not guilty.
That investigation continues and prosecutors said this week that additional charges are likely. CNN reported that investigators are probing Giuliani’s financial ties to Parnas and his overseas dealings in Ukraine and elsewhere and have talked to witnesses and issued subpoenas.
Prosecutors said they seized nearly 30 electronic devices from Parnas and his co-defendants and are still trying to crack the passwords. This would give investigators access to thousands of emails and text messages, perhaps including some communications with Nunes or Harvey.
On Tuesday, Schiff sidestepped direct questions about Nunes’ links to the Ukraine scheme. But while presenting the findings of his 300-page report, Schiff indirectly raised the alarm about Nunes’ potential conduct.
“It is deeply concerning that at a time when the president of the United States was using the power of his office to dig up dirt on a political rival, that there may be evidence that there were members of Congress complicit in that activity,” Schiff said, alluding to his colleague Nunes.
CNN’s Olanma Mang and Kara Scannell contributed to this story.