Fox News’ pro-Trump personalities are rallying to the defense of House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes (R-CA) after the Intelligence Committee’s report on its impeachment inquiry revealed that he had been in contact with Lev Parnas, a central figure in the Ukraine abuse of power scandal who is under indictment for campaign finance violations related to the scheme.
Notably, Nunes sought to downplay the call records showing those communications during a softball interview with network star and Trump adviser Sean Hannity. The congressman, who has frequently sought to undermine the impeachment inquiry as one of the president’s most stalwart defenders, has made at least 93 appearances on weekday Fox programming this year, including 35 interviews on Hannity’s program. Fox personalities have suggested in turn that Parnas wasn’t on the calls, that Nunes wasn’t on the calls, or that the real story is that the records were obtained in the first place.
The Intelligence Committee report, released Tuesday, built on previously unveiled witness testimony to describe a systematic effort by President Donald Trump and his allies to condition military aid to Ukraine and a White House visit by its president on the public announcement of politically motivated investigations to benefit Trump’s reelection. But it also included new information in the form of phone records obtained from AT&T between the White House, Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and an array of administration, right-wing media, and other figures that help detail the extent of the scheme.
Notably, the logs reveal four calls or attempted calls between Nunes and Parnas on April 12, one of which lasted longer than eight minutes. Those communications happened as Parnas was working alongside Giuliani, conservative columnist John Solomon, and the Republican lawyers Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova to promote discredited conspiracy theories about then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and former Vice President Joe Biden. Based in part on dirt provided by Giuliani, Solomon published a series of columns in The Hill, which he, Toensing, and diGenova would promote in frequent appearances on Fox News programs, particularly on Hannity.
On October 9, Parnas and fellow Giuliani associate Igor Fruman were arrested at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. They were subsequently charged with campaign finance violations related to what prosecutors describe as a plot to force Yovanovich’s removal that was conducted “at least in part, at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.” At the time of their arrest, Parnas and Fruman were headed to Vienna, Austria, to help with a planned interview that Hannity was doing with Ukraine's former Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, a key ally in Giuliani’s anti-Biden effort.
The records show that Nunes actually had previously undisclosed communications with key figures involved in the very scheme his committee has been investigating. That conflict of interest raises questions about why Nunes did not recuse himself from the inquiry. And so on Tuesday night, the congressman sought help from Hannity in cleaning up the mess (the host’s softballs have made him the go-to interviewer for Republicans caught up in scandals).
“My sources are telling me that three of the four so-called calls were apparently just to Giuliani and maybe on Parnas’ phone and under a minute,” Hannity said, giving no indication who those sources were or why he was granting them anonymity. “Is that true?”
After Nunes claimed that he had been in regular contact with Giuliani at the time because special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference had just been released, Hannity returned to the question of his communications with Giuliani’s con man associate.
“Did you ever talk to this guy Les Parnas or whoever his name is?” Hannity asked, deliberately mispronouncing his name as if he were unfamiliar with him.
“You know, it’s possible,” Nunes replied. “But I haven’t gone through my phone records. I don’t really recall that name. I remember the name now because he has been indicted. But why would CNN rely on somebody like this? You know, I will go back and check all my records, but it seems very unlikely that I would be taking calls from random people.” Nunes went on to suggest that Parnas, a Giuliani associate who played a key role in the Ukraine scheme, was trying to obstruct justice and interfere with the congressional inquiry.
Fox viewers were likely as unfamiliar with Parnas as Hannity pretended to be. While the House report had been unveiled several hours earlier, the only previous discussion that day of his interactions with Nunes came after progressive commentator Juan Williams mentioned them on the panel show The Five.
“We have a call log,” Williams said, adding that it shows Nunes “was involved with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, with the president, with Lev Parnas, this guy whose been indicted for financial campaign abuse.”
“Yeah, they have the call logs but they don’t have what they said on the calls,” former Bush press secretary and Fox host Dana Perino interjected.
“Yeah, but it sure looks bad,” Williams replied.
Conservative host Katie Pavlich then moved the conservation to the question of whether the records should have been obtained in the first place, saying “I think it’s interesting that Adam Schiff, the chairman, was looking at phone calls made by the ranking member who he’s supposed to be working with on this committee.”
By Wednesday morning, Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett was debuting a new talking point -- perhaps Nunes hadn’t actually been on the phone for the calls recorded in the phone logs. “Well we just don't know because we don't know the details,” he told Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade. “In fact, it's a call log. Does that mean that Devin Nunes was actually on the call or somebody else?”
It's unclear exactly what Jarrett is suggesting happened here. But if he's claiming that someone potentially stole the House Intelligence Committee ranking member’s phone to call the White House, the president’s lawyer, and an accused felon (and there’s no reason to believe that is the case given Nunes’ own statements the previous night on Hannity), that would presumably be a big and damaging story for Nunes.
And in a separate segment, fellow co-host Steve Doocy attacked Schiff for “investigating the ranking member” by obtaining the phone records, which a Fox guest described as “unconscionable.”