Text messages point to Rep. Devin Nunes in Ukraine scheme at heart of Trump impeachment
As the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) presented a fiery defense of President Trump during impeachment hearings last month, angrily accusing Democrats of ginning up a false narrative about the president’s efforts to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival.
But newly released text messages suggest Nunes’ staff was aware of and involved in portions of the scheme, casting a new light on his combative defense.
Documents released by the House committee show repeated contact between Lev Parnas, who worked with Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, and Derek Harvey, an aide to Nunes on the committee, about meetings with Ukrainian prosecutors to get damaging information about Democrat Joe Biden, who is running for president, and about a debunked theory about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. election.
The messages between Parnas, who functioned as Giuliani’s emissary to Ukrainian officials, and Harvey indicate Nunes’ office was aware of the back-channel White House effort that has led to Trump’s impeachment on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Parnas, who is facing federal campaign finance violation charges in New York, has publicly turned on Trump and Giuliani in recent weeks. He has provided documents to the House committee and given explosive media interviews as the Senate prepares to determine whether to remove Trump from office. The trial will begin in earnest on Tuesday.
In his interviews, Parnas has sought to tie Nunes closely to the attempt to unearth dirt on Biden and to gather information on an unsubstantiated theory promoted by Russia — but refuted by the U.S. intelligence community — that it was Ukraine, not Russia, who interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
A spokesman for Nunes did not return an email seeking comment Saturday.
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During the House impeachment inquiry, Nunes accused Democrats of coordinating with the still-anonymous whistle-blower who first alleged that Trump had blocked nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine until newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly committed to announcing an investigation of Biden and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while Biden was vice president, and the false claims about 2016.
The text messages appear to show that Parnas sought to set up Skype and FaceTime calls last spring between Harvey and Ukrainian officials who were assisting Giuliani in his efforts to gather negative information on Biden and to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was seen as an obstacle.
It is unclear from the messages whether the calls took place, but Parnas’ attorney has said they did. One from April 3 shows Harvey grumbling that Parnas was providing information to John Solomon, a former columnist for The Hill, rather than to him.
“Any documents for us or are you going to keep working through Solomon?” Harvey wrote.
Eight days later, Solomon published the first in a series of articles promoting the conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the U.S. election, that Biden’s son had worked for a corrupt Ukrainian company, and a story that Yovanovitch gave Ukrainian officials a list of people not to investigate. The named source in that article has since recanted his accusation.
Other messages show Parnas and Harvey arranging to meet with Giuliani and Solomon at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on May 7, the day after the U.S. Embassy in Kiev announced Yovanovitch had been recalled and just days before Parnas and Giuliani were scheduled to meet with members of Zelensky’s new Cabinet in Ukraine.
Parnas’ attorney had previously told CNBC that Harvey initially planned to interview the Ukrainian officials in person but scrapped the trip in favor of Skype interviews after realizing that the travel would need to be approved by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who heads the House Intelligence Committee and who had not signed off on investigations involving Ukraine.
Parnas told MSNBC in an interview aired this week that he was told to work with Harvey because Nunes “couldn’t be in a spotlight” because of an ethics investigation.
In 2017 the House Ethics Committee investigated whether Nunes had improperly disclosed classified information during the Republican-led investigation into what the Trump campaign knew about Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.
The GOP-led Ethics Committee cleared Nunes of the allegations, and the investigation was dropped in December 2017, long before Harvey and Parnas began texting.
Harvey previously served on Trump’s National Security Council as a special assistant to the president and senior director for the Middle East.
Nunes’ apparent role on the margins of the Ukraine saga has been slow to emerge.
Last month, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a report that included records showing several phone calls between Nunes and either Parnas or Giuliani in early 2019, including a call with Parnas that lasted nearly nine minutes.
House Republicans criticized Democrats for pointing out the calls in their report, saying it was done to give the impression that Nunes had done something wrong.
Nunes brushed aside the suggestion, saying he spoke to Giuliani about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, which was winding down at the time. He said he had no recollection of speaking to Parnas, and while he needed to check his records, it “seems very unlikely I will be taking calls from random people.”
“You know, it’s possible,” Nunes told Fox News. “I haven’t gone through my phone records. I don’t really recall that name.”
But last week, shortly before Parnas told MSNBC that he and Nunes had spoken on the phone and met in person but don’t “have too much of a relationship,” Nunes said he did recall a phone call with Parnas.
“I checked it with my records, and it was very clear — I remember that call, which was very odd, random, talking about random things, and I said, ‘Great,’ you know, ‘Talk to my staff,’ and boom, boom, boom,” Nunes told Fox News on Wednesday. “That’s just normal operating procedure.”
Following that interview, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) announced on Twitter that Nunes had threatened him with a lawsuit in December unless he apologized for saying Nunes had conspired with Parnas. Lieu included both the original letter from Nunes’ lawyer and Lieu’s Jan. 16 letter in response.
“I welcome any lawsuit from your client and look forward to taking discovery of Congressman Nunes,” Lieu wrote. “Or, you can take your letter and shove it.”
Nunes has filed several lawsuits in the last year against reporters whose coverage he did not like, and against Twitter users who were critical of him during the 2016 election, including users pretending to be his mother and his cow. Most of the cases are still pending.