Someday, when Hollywood starts making movies and episodic dramas about this bizarre epoch in American history – that time when Russia installed a fat, orange-tinted fourth-grader in the White House, and “conservatives” cheered and plotted to keep him there – there will be a whole dog-kennel’s worth of knaves to fill out any plot, from sweaty international man-of-mystery Paul Manafort to rosy-cheeked son-of-a-felon Jared Kushner. Screenwriters will be forced to pick and choose their villains; there will be far too many to pack into a script. But when it comes to comic relief, the choices (beyond Donald Trump himself) will be easy and universal: Failed-academic-in-a-Gilligan-hat Carter Page is guaranteed to become a stock character in the saga, as the eager stooge too dumb to be a spy. And Devin Nunes, the climate-denying mediocrity from Tulare, California, will take his place in the mythology as Trump and Putin’s most useful idiot on Capitol Hill.
Before Trump came along, Nunes was just another hack in the Republican House, a Central Valley milk-farmer from Portuguese stock cursed with a face that looks permanently astonished. After lucking his way into Congress in 2003, he’d risen to chair the House Intelligence Committee the old-fashioned way, through sycophancy. He endeared himself to future Speaker Paul Ryan by glomming on to his fever dream of demolishing the social safety net, and earned his Intelligence chairmanship by serving as an attack dog for then-Speaker John Boehner when Tea Partiers wanted to shut down the government in 2013; Nunes memorably assailed the GOP rebels as “lemmings with suicide vests.”
Then, in 2016, his fast friendship with deposed General Michael Flynn (“I talk to Flynn virtually every day, if not multiple times a day,” Nunes proudly told a reporter in December 2016) landed him on the executive committee of Trump’s presidential transition team. From there, it was a short step into historical infamy last March, when Nunes made his clandestine “midnight run” to the White House to be given (by one of Flynn’s toadies) classified documents that falsely “proved” President Obama had “wiretapped Trump Tower,” which he proceeded to make public in a manner so clumsy he almost lost his Intelligence perch.
Ever since, Nunes has gleefully embraced his role as Trump’s congressional stooge, turning the House investigation of Russia’s election meddling into a bumbling fake-news shitshow that’s been essential in the effort to distract both the media and Trump-supporters from the actual story. This year, Nunes laid his second great claim to historical infamy by ordering up the four-page #ReleaseTheMemo that purported to prove that Christopher Steele’s dossier, sponsored by Hillary Clinton, was the FBI’s sole rationale for launching an investigation into the Trump-Russia connection. The fact that the memo showed exactly the opposite was a minor inconvenience; Memogate, like the original Nunes caper, became (and remains) a deadly effective weapon of mass distraction.
This past weekend, another twist in the screwball Nunes plot was uncovered by Politico. Not content to cry “fake news” in response to any challenge to his pro-Trump propaganda, Nunes had, below the radar, begun to produce his own fake news, with his campaign team publishing a website called The California Republican. Billing itself on Facebook as a “media/news company” that publishes “the best of US, California, and Central Valley news, sports, and analysis,” The California Republican turned out to be little more than an aggregation of pro-Trump propaganda lifted from The National Review and The Federalist, leavened with borrowed stories about the evils of California liberalism and (you truly cannot make this stuff up) a steady flow of reports about Fresno State University’s football team.
Almost nobody was reading The California Republican until Politico noticed the thing; it had fewer than 4,000 “likes” and followers on Facebook. Aside from the occasionally witty headline (“The Russians are everywhere … and nowhere,” “Raisin Hell: Weather batters raisin crop to 35-year worst“), there wasn’t much to read. But Politico blew it up into something scandalous: “Devin Nunes creates his own alternative news site,” screeched the headline, followed by the subhead: “Embattled California congressman finds a way to bypass the mainstream media.” Called by Politico for comment, Nunes’ chief of staff Anthony Ratekin snidely declined to give one until “Politico retracts its multitude of fake stories on Congressman Nunes.”
On Sunday, shortly after the story began to circulate, The California Republican went down, redirecting traffic to an error message on Facebook – and creating a whole new raft of headlines and irresistible intrigue. The explanation given for the site crash was intentionally muddled and mysterious: “Due to heavy traffic and an attack on our servers, you may encounter an error message when attempting to reach The Republican.” Had the site really become popular overnight, or had it actually been hacked at the very same moment it hit the headlines? Was the site actually just a version of a congressional newsletter, designed for the fans back home, or some more sinister attempt at propagating Trump-Russian propaganda? Enquiring minds needed to know! The fact that, for one crucial day, the only way to access the site was through the Wayback Machine only added to the intrigue.
The site is back up now, for all to see, with its weird mix of local news from Tulare and the Fresno State gridiron and borrowed content from folks like National Review’s resident Trump apologist, Victor Davis Hanson. But thanks to the free publicity, it’ll now become a go-to source for many conspiratorial conservatives. It doesn’t matter that it’s a “news” site paid for by Nunes’s campaign (which is, not surprisingly, flush with extraneous cash). It doesn’t matter that it’s a glorified aggregation site, with staffers adding snarky headlines (“CNN busted for peddling fake news AGAIN!”) and brief introductions to excerpts from borrowed content. Like Nunes himself, it’s now been “attacked” by Washington elites, and thus become a thing in spite of itself.
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On Twitter, the suddenly famous California Republican has been having a field day. On Sunday, it tweeted: “We are real news, POLITICO.” It posted a photo of Nunes with the caption: “This is what an American hero looks like.” Yesterday, it defended Milo Yiannopolous against the “accusation” that he’s a white nationalist, among other things, and declared in another tweet that “‘Dreamers’ are killing Americans.”
The brief and puffed-up controversy over Nunes’s publishing venture will be, of course, a mere footnote in the history of a congressional mediocrity’s weird rise to national prominence as a witting tool of Vladimir Putin – and, according to a New York Times op-ed on Monday, potentially as another target of Robert Mueller’s investigation into obstruction of justice. But it’s a telling subplot in the larger drama, as one more instance of the unquestioned talent Trump and his co-conspirators have displayed for ratfucking the media, and ultimately the American public. While Nunes cried “fake news” at every turn – “Almost every story that runs about me is fake,” he mock-complained to Rush Limbaugh last week – his massive campaign kitty was being used to produce a website devoted to partisan spin.