Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, appears to have moved from criticizing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to strategizing about how to blunt its impact should it imperil President Donald Trump.
The most promising instrument in this effort, he suggested in unfiltered remarks last month, is retaining a GOP-controlled Congress.
Even if he had been speaking publicly, the eight-term Republican might not have chosen his words differently. He is an adamantly pro-Trump lawmaker who in February released a memorandum accusing the intelligence community of conspiring against the president. In May, he sought documents from the Justice Department - as part of his investigation into the law enforcement officials leading the Russia inquiry - that senior intelligence officials maintained could expose a top source and endanger lives.
But it was in private, at a closed-door fundraiser for a Republican colleague, that Nunes took the new step of tying the investigation to the midterm elections this fall. In comments captured in an audio recording aired Wednesday by "The Rachel Maddow Show," Nunes laid out in stark terms the rationale for preserving the GOP majority in Congress.
"If Sessions won't unrecuse and Mueller won't clear the president, we're the only ones, which is really the danger," Nunes said at an event for Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, referring to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, and Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Sessions said last year that he would keep his distance from inquiries related to the 2016 election owing to his role in Trump's campaign - a move that has frustrated the president, leading him to blame his own attorney general for the "Russian Witch Hunt Hoax."
"I mean, we have to keep all these seats," Nunes added. "We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away."
He seemed to suggest that congressional Republicans formed the last line of defense against potential fallout from the probe into Russian election meddling. He called this a "classic Catch-22 situation," appearing to confuse a "tough spot" - also his words - with a situation in which contradictory conditions make escape impossible.
Maddow said on her show that the tape was made by a progressive organization called Fuse Washington that paid for entrance into the fundraiser, held on July 30 in Spokane, Washington. A spokesman for Nunes didn't return a request for comment sent late Wednesday by The Washington Post.
The remarks drew immediate rebuke from Democrats. Rep. Ted Lieu, also of California, called on Nunes to resign, saying his comments ran counter to the oath of office he had taken upon entering Congress.
Others observed that the lawmaker's actions over the past year made his comments unsurprising. "After all," tweeted University of Texas Law School professor Steve Vladeck, "this has been the only explanation - for quite some time - for his ridiculous behavior on everything from the unmasking scandal" to the "Rosenstein impeachment." Nunes announced last year that he would step aside from his own committee's investigation into Russian interference after the House Ethics Committee said it was examining allegations that he "may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information." He has denied wrongdoing.
Ted Lieu tweeted "Under our Constitution, the duty of Congress is not to clear the President. The duty of Congress is to be a check and balance on the Executive Branch, and to pursue the facts wherever they may lead.
"Devin Nunes should resign for perverting the oath he took."
Nunes made several other noteworthy statements to the audience of GOP donors, also concerning the Russia investigation and its supervision.
He blamed the Senate's schedule - and the interest in swiftly confirming Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court - for the failure of the House to take up impeachment proceedings against Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. Just days before Nunes' closed-door remarks in Washington state, a group of conservative lawmakers introduced a resolution calling for Rosenstein's impeachment, though they stopped short of forcing a vote on the matter. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., responded by saying he opposed the effort and reaffirmed his belief that Justice Department officials were acting appropriately.
But Nunes said that resistance to Rosenstein's impeachment was mostly about scheduling.
"I've said publicly Rosenstein deserves to be impeached," Nunes said. "I don't think you're gonna get any argument from most of our colleagues. The question is the timing of it right before the election."
The danger, he said, was holding up the judicial nomination, as "the Senate would have to drop everything they're doing and start to, and start with impeachment on Rosenstein, and then take the risk of not getting Kavanaugh confirmed."
"It's a matter of timing," Nunes said.
Rosenstein, who appointed and now supervises Mueller, defended the special counsel investigation when he was brought before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this summer.
The series of recordings made public by Maddow do not include every question to which Nunes was responding. But at another point during the fundraiser, he addressed the issue of collusion, considering a hypothetical situation in which a campaign received stolen emails from a foreign power and then released them, labeling this activity "criminal."
"Now if somebody thinks that my campaign or Cathy's campaign is colluding with the Chinese, or you name the country, hey, could happen, it would be a very bad thing if Cathy was getting secrets from the Portuguese, let's say, just because I'm Portuguese, my family was," Nunes said, using McMorris Rodgers as an example in his hypothetical. "But ultimately let's say the Portuguese came and brought her some stolen emails, and she decided to release those. Okay, now we have a problem, right? Because somebody stole the emails, gave them to Cathy, Cathy released them. Well, if that's the case, then that's criminal."
In the portion of his remarks played on MSNBC, Nunes neither compares nor contrasts this scenario with the release in 2016 of private Democratic communications.
The indictment last month of 12 Russian military intelligence officers shed new light on the timing and methods of Russia's penetration into email accounts associated with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president. The same day that Trump publicly urged Russia, "if you're listening," to "find the 30,000 emails that are missing," the indictment revealed, several Russian government hackers began trying to access the email accounts of staffers in Clinton's private office. The indictment further described how the Russians delivered the cache of hacked emails to WikiLeaks, the online organization led by Julian Assange. In 2016, the London-based anti-secrecy activist had contact with Roger Stone, an informal adviser to Trump, according to two of Stone's associates. (The Republican political operative denies communicating with Assange.)
Finally, Nunes, touted by the president as a "Great American Hero," revealed at the fundraiser that even he sometimes winces at the Trump's online communications. He called the president's tweets a "mixed bag."
"Like sometimes you love the president's tweets, sometimes we cringe on the president's tweets," he said, attempting to discredit Mueller's purported examination of Trump's inflammatory posts as part of his inquiry into possible obstruction of justice.
"This is all political," Nunes said.