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Secret recording highlights Nunes’ concern with protecting Trump in Russia probe

A secret recording acquired by MSNBC captures House Intelligence chairman Republican Rep. Devin Nunes at a fundraiser discussing the Russia probe -- specifically how Republicans should protect President Trump from the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference. Lisa Desjardins joins William Brangham to break it down.

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  • William Brangham:

    Amidst the talk of sanctioning Russia, there, of course, remains the ongoing probe into that country's interference in the 2016 election.

    And last night, we got a fairly unique look at just how political that investigation has become.

    MSNBC acquired a secret recording of House Intel Chairman Republican Devin Nunes discussing the Russia probe at a fund-raiser.

  • Devin Nunes:

    If Sessions won't un-recuse and Mueller won't clear the president, we're the only ones, which is really the danger. That's why I keep — and thank you for saying it, by the way — I mean, we have to keep all these seats.

    We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.

  • William Brangham:

    I'm joined now by our Capitol Hill correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.

    Lisa, what are we supposed to make of this? Devin Nunes has been criticizing the Mueller probe for a long time. So, on one level, this isn't surprising.

    But, still, this is the head of the House Intel Committee seeming to imply that his job is to protect the president from Robert Mueller.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's what stands out here.

    Devin Nunes, as you said, is the head of one of the most important committees of Congress. His job is oversight of the most sensitive information about protecting this country that there is. And that job generally has not been partisan in this way.

    On the other hand, Devin Nunes is also someone who was on the steering committee for the Trump campaign. And it's an issue of how he's been balancing those two roles. In this tape, it makes it seem like his priority is to protect and reelect the president vs. thinking about intelligence matters.

    Clearly, he's a person who can do both, but in that tape, you want to think about perhaps a different Trump administration official, Jeff Sessions. He's someone who was in the Trump campaign. But he decided to recuse himself when those two things came into conflict.

    That's why Jeff Sessions is not overseeing the Russia investigation, Rod Rosenstein is.

    So, let me play another piece of tape from Nunes about Rosenstein and whether Mr. Rosenstein should be impeached.

  • Devin Nunes:

    And I've said publicly Rosenstein deserves to be impeached. The question is the timing of it right before the election.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, that piece of tape right there, William, that shows he's making a policy decision and the timing of a policy decision based on politics.

    And he can be political. There's nothing against a member of Congress being political, but in the high stakes of intelligence, it's something to discuss.

  • William Brangham:

    Has Nunes responded to this? I know you reached out to him today.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    His spokesperson did get back to me and gave me this statement, that, "It is unsurprising to see the left-wing media spin Chairman Nunes' routine observations as some nefarious plot since, since these same media outlets spent the last year-and-a-half touting a nonexistent Russia collusion conspiracy."

    Wow, a lot of that statement, huh?

    Obviously, the idea that the Russia collusion charges are in a conspiracy, that's debatable. But, basically, what they're saying here is this is a media invention against Mr. Nunes.

    I will say there are broader questions within the House Republicans' caucus as well. Senate Republicans handle this whole matter differently. But, for House Republicans, you see a real, I think, conflict between their role as balancing out the executive branch — they are in charge of a separate and equal branch of government — vs. supporting a president whose policy goals they think they can help.

    We have seen this also with Speaker Ryan, who has said he will not put issues on the floor that the president will not sign. Not new to Republicans. Democrats have done similar too. But it's a fair question right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Does it surprise you that Nunes puts this in the context of the coming midterm elections? Or does that just seem that's the world we live in?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    No, it's not a surprise, especially when you look at polling.

    Look at the partisan difference over this issue in particular. For example, Reuters asked just this month, should the Mueller investigation be ended? Now, look at that; 64 percent of Republicans agreed that it should end now, just 18 percent of Democrats.

    So what you see is, they are playing to their base on this. And, really, what is amazing, William, is even as the Trump administration tries to beat down on the Mueller investigation, those numbers haven't changed. Republicans still have more doubts. Democrats have less.

    What is changing is independents are less sure about Mueller. They, by and large, support the investigation, but really this kind of talk is about talking to the base. And that is exactly, literally, what Devin Nunes was doing in that fund-raiser.

  • William Brangham:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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