TULARE, Calif. – Devin Nunes, the embattled chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is caught in a Washington maelstrom surrounding his role in the Trump-Russia investigation. Democrats are demanding he recuse himself from the probe. Even a few Republican colleagues have called his stewardship into question amid concerns of coordination between the congressman and the White House.
Back home, however, there is little evidence that Nunes’ grind through news cycle after news cycle is turning his district against him. Even Republicans left scratching their heads by his actions are inclined to give Nunes the benefit of the doubt – if anything, his difficulties in Washington are only improving his stock among Republicans at home.
“Every time Devin comes on TV, we’re very proud of him,” said Mariann Hedstrom, chairwoman of the Tulare County Republican Party.
Earlier this week, while plowing through yet another segment on Nunes, the afternoon host on Fresno’s KMJ talk radio expressed sympathy for his plight, perplexed by the “strange ride” the Central Valley Republican took to meet a source on White House grounds but largely reserving judgment.
“The way he’s being lambasted and barbecued right now, how much worse can it get?” said the host, Chris Daniel, before turning to a live shot of Nunes on TV. “Somebody please get this guy a Tempur-Pedic and 10 hours alone so he can sleep.”
Once named one of Time magazine’s “40 under 40” civic leaders, Nunes, now 43, has cultivated a loyal following in his hometown as a member of a prominent farming family in this agricultural city straddling Highway 99.
His supporters portray him as a victim of partisan politics. If they are unsure about his activities — including his decision to brief President Donald Trump on evidence that he said showed members of Trump’s transition team came under inadvertent surveillance — they are inclined to set their reservations aside.
“My guess is he probably wishes he did something different when he talked to the president,” said Steve Brandau, a Republican member of the Fresno City Council who said he nevertheless supports Nunes fully.
“I haven’t seen anything that’s really given me pause yet,” Brandau said. “I have no idea the way it works in the intelligence community …He’s earned that, to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
The dominant newspaper in Nunes’ district, the Fresno Bee, was less forgiving over the weekend, calling Nunes’ handling of the investigation “inept and bewildering” and describing him as “subservient” to Trump. The editorial served to reinforce some groaning among critics — some of them national Republicans — who view Nunes as out of his depth.
“The problem that he’s created is he’s gone off on a lark by himself, sort of an Inspector Clouseau investigation here,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday. “The only way this thing can be repaired is he tells his colleagues on the House Intel committee who he met with and what he saw and let them look at the same information.”
Yet Nunes maintains the support of Republicans in the House, and in a home district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 10 percentage points but are still growing accustomed to a local representative making national headline news.
Johnny Amaral, Nunes’ former longtime chief of staff, said Nunes is “not a guy who rushes towards reporters or news cameras.”
“I have no idea what it is he knows, but the Devin I knew doesn’t do this type of stuff normally,” Amaral said. “And if he does … I can only surmise that it’s something big.”
In the weeks following Trump’s election, speculation circulated in Tulare that the congressman might move into the administration. He was not an early endorser of the president’s campaign but he was no resister, and he was close enough to the inner circle that he served on the transition team. When he did not land an administration post, it was widely assumed that he would resume his previous, lower profile.
Now, while Republicans root him on, there are also signs that Nunes’ constituents are tiring of the controversy. Over a highball at the Elks Lodge in Tulare this week, Jim Lowrey, a Democrat, said “you never did hear too much about Devin over the last seven, eight years,” and for all that time he “did a really pretty good job.”
But in recent weeks, Lowrey said, “I think he’s protecting Trump.”
Lowrey’s date, Karen McKinney, a Republican, disagreed, and she was eager to move on from Russia. As long as Washington focuses on the investigation, she said, “nothing’s going to get done.”
The Central Valley is not unaccustomed to public expressions of partisan politics. Roadside signs blaming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats for environmental policies restricting water deliveries to the area have stood for years amid orchards and vineyards as fixtures of the landscape. Nunes has contributed to the discord, as well, sharply criticizing Pelosi in recent years and, at one point, running ads attacking Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Pelosi has returned the favor in full, recently referring to her California colleague as “deeply compromised” and “a stooge of the president.”
Connie Conway, a former state Assembly Republican leader from Tulare, said she can “hardly look at Facebook anymore … The world has gotten so hyper-political, and even an old political hack like me, I tire of it.”
Conway, who has known Nunes since before he won election to Congress in 2002, described him as a “serious person” who is “just trying to get to the truth” in the Russia investigation.
“He’s not doing these things lightly,” she said. “People that are critical of anything that a person with an ‘R’ after their name does are using (the investigation) as an excuse to be critical of him.”
Conway had one other complaint — about the pronunciation of Nunes’ name.
“I wish they’d say his name right,” she said. “If I hear that Chuck Schumer one more time calling him ‘Núñez’ — it drives me crazy.”
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