The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee claims President Donald Trump and his transition team were “incidentally” surveilled prior to inauguration.
Trump’s team had their communications inadvertently collected as part of legal foreign intelligence gathering by the U.S. government in November, December, and January, according to Rep. Devin Nunes who addressed reporters at an impromptu press conference Wednesday in the Capitol.
“I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show that the president-elect and his team were... monitored,” Nunes told the press. “It had nothing to do with any criminal investigation.”
Democrats responded with incredulity that Nunes briefed the public and the president before the committee. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee was unspairing.
"If accurate, this information should have been shared with members of the committee, but it has not been," Schiff said. "Indeed, it appears that committee members only learned about this when the Chairman discussed the matter this afternoon with the press. The Chairman also shared this information with the White House before providing it to the committee, another profound irregularity, given that the matter is currently under investigation. I have expressed my grave concerns with the Chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way."
Following his announcement in the Capitol, Nunes went to the White House to brief the president on the news. It's a strange move that throws into doubt the independence of the investigation he is currently undertaking on the president and his campaign.
After a meeting with Nunes, President Donald Trump said he felt vindicated, presumably in his debunked claim he was "wiretapped" before taking office. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
But Nunes didn't vindicate Trump: he said last week Trump Tower was not "wiretapped." And Trump's original claim was that he had been "wiretapped" by President Obama last October, during the presidential campaign. Nunes said Wednesday incidental collection occurred in the three months following October.
Nunes’s briefing came days after the bombshell revelation that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign for possible ties to Russia, which interfered in the U.S. elections. The surveillance Nunes revealed was not related to Russia, he said.
The Daily Beast asked Nunes which country was targeted by the foreign surveillance, and he declined to answer. Nunes did say that the intercepted communications were “widely disseminated” through the U.S. government and the names of U.S. persons were “unmasked” in these reports.
“The administration, I don’t think, is aware of this. So I’m going to make sure I go over there and tell them right now,” Nunes said. This includes “information on the president-elect, his transition team, and what they were doing.”
“I’m alarmed by it,” Nunes said. “Clearly I thought it was important enough to tell all of you, inform the speaker [of the House of Representatives].”
Asked whether the surveillance was political in nature, Nunes responded, in a second press conference outside the White House, "Some of it seems to be inappropriate… I don't know if the American people would be comfortable with what I've read."
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been scrambling for weeks after President Trump made the allegation that he had been wiretapped during the campaign.
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Trump wrote on Twitter. The FBI has said it could not find any evidence to support this.
Nunes’ announcement was unrelated to Russia, and came just two days after the FBI told Congress in a hearing that they were actively investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, and whether there was collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government.
Republicans spent a large portion of their time during their Monday hearing railing against leakers who revealed that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was engaged in communications with the Russian ambassador -- even suggesting that reporters who published the information should be prosecuted.
But on Wednesday, Nunes revealed to the press that legal American surveillance picked up communications by Trump’s team. At one point he said that President Trump’s own communication had been swept up; at another, he insisted that this was merely “possible.”
This raises the question of whether Nunes leaked classified information about surveillance without authorization.
“If he didn’t get authorization, he just released classified information without authorization. Two days after we just had a hearing filled with rants about leaks of classified information,” Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer, told The Daily Beast. “That type of information is not public knowledge, one way or another. That’s classified.”
Nunes’s spokesman did not respond directly to a question regarding whether Nunes got the green-light from the intelligence community or the White House to reveal the existence of these surveillance activities, but said, “Chairman Nunes deliberately avoided discussing any details that would be classified.”
What is clear is that Nunes's move throws into doubt the independence of the investigation he is currently undertaking on the president and his campaign.
"In the 40 years of the committee's existence... I have never heard the chairman of an oversight committee going to brief the president of the United States about concerns he has about things he has read in intelligence reports," said Jeremy Bash, the former chief counsel of the House Intelligence Committee, on MSNBC Wednesday afternoon. "The job of the committee is to do oversight over the executive branch, not to... tip them off to things they may be looking at."