Evidence is growing that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes engaged in an elaborate charade last week when he went to brief the president about what he spun as an alarming development: The U.S. government had spied on some of his top aides.
Nunes claimed he was visiting the White House to tell the president about “incidental collection” of Trump transition team officials caught up in foreign surveillance. He claimed this information had been brought to him by whistleblowers.
But then Nunes’s story began to fall apart. First came the news that he mysteriously fell off the grid the evening before he briefed the president. That was followed by his admission that he had been on White House grounds that night.
And on Thursday, things went from bad to worse for Nunes and the White House. The New York Times reported that two White House officials were the ones who gave Nunes those intelligence reports.
That means these White House officials provided documents to Nunes privately, after which Nunes rushed publicly to the White House to brief them on documents he had reviewed. Whether it was the purpose of the charade or not, the mysterious behavior of the chairman has blown up the intelligence community’s investigation into Russia and changed the topic from the FBI’s ongoing investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Thursday’s report means that either Nunes has been lying to the public or The New York Times is flat wrong on a story that neither Nunes nor the White House will deny.
“To comment on that story would be to validate certain things that I am not at liberty to do,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. But previous Spicer comments suggest that he may have known how many sources were providing surveillance information to Nunes. Asked about Nunes’s sources on Tuesday, the spokesman alluded to “two individuals who were properly cleared” before adding “or three, or whoever he met with.”
A House Intelligence Committee spokesperson also declined to dispute the report.
“As he’s stated many times, Chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source’s identity, and he will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Nunes previously told Bloomberg View this week that his source was not a White House staffer but was instead an intelligence official.
And during his initial foray with the press, Nunes explained that he needed to brief the president because “the administration isn’t aware of this, so I need to make sure I go over there and tell them what I know. Because it involves them.”
But The New York Times reported that his sources were Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a senior aide on the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a White House lawyer who formerly worked on Nunes’s committee. It The New York Times’ report is true, Nunes was misleading the public.
Previously, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had sought to oust Cohen-Watnick at the behest of Central Intelligence Agency officials who were uncomfortable dealing with him. Cohen-Watnick appealed to top White House advisers Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, who pleaded his case with President Trump. On March 12, according to a Politico report, Trump overruled McMaster and allowed Cohen-Watnick to remain in his post.
Shortly before Trump moved to secure Cohen-Watnick’s position, the White House brought on Nunes’s reported second NSC source. It hired Ellis on March 7 directly from Nunes’s committee, where he served as chief counsel.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Wednesday that Nunes had briefed Ryan on his conversations with his sources. He recalled Nunes attributing the information to “a whistleblower type person,” which is not typically how one refers to a former lawyer and longtime colleague.
But Ryan’s office declined to comment on the Times report. “The speaker doesn’t know the source of the disclosure to Chairman Nunes,” spokesperson AshLee Strong said in an email. “As the speaker said this morning, the chairman has his full confidence,” she added.
On Thursday afternoon, the highest-ranking House Intelligence Committee Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, announced that the White House sent him a letter inviting him to the White House to view documents that may be the same ones Nunes had reviewed there last week.
“It raised the profound question why they were not directly provided to the White House by the National Security staff and instead were provided through a circuitous route involving the chairman,” Schiff told the press. “If that was designed to hide the origin of the materials, that raises profound questions about just what the White House is doing that need to be answered.”
Schiff and other Democrats have already called on Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation.
“Why all the cloak and dagger stuff? And that’s something that we need to get to the bottom of. I hope we’ll get the White House cooperation on that issue,” Schiff said.
The scrutiny comes as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned after serving in the position for less than a month after questions over false statements he gave about meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, reportedly offered to testify before the FBI and the House and Senate Intelligence committees in exchange for immunity. According to the The Wall Street Journal, Flynn’s offer has not been accepted yet, but he reportedly hopes to exchange immunity from prosecution for information pertinent to the ongoing investigation of Russian election tampering.
Nunes has shared few details about what was in the surveillance reports that he has cited to claim that the Trump campaign was picked up in foreign intelligence. He initially said that surveillance collected incidental communications by the president himself before walking back that claim.
He has faced criticism from Democratic colleagues on the committee for personally discussing surveillance information with the president before sharing it with other committee members. Nunes has said he never plans to disclose to those colleagues who his sources for the information were.
Nunes is simultaneously leading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, and congressional Democrats say Nunes’s backchanneling with the president has compromised the integrity of that investigation.
As questions swirl about the independence of Nunes’s probe, some of his House Republican colleagues have offered less than helpful defenses.
“You’ve got to keep in mind that he works for the president. He answers to the president,” said Florida Rep. Ted Yoho on MSNBC on Thursday. In fact, Nunes and Yoho both work for the legislative, not the executive, branch of the federal government.
Doesn’t “he work for the constituents of his district?” MSNBC host Craig Melvin asked.
“Well, you do both,” Yoho said.