By Billy House, Margaret Talev, and Jennifer Jacobs
‘I’m actually alarmed’ conversations were captured, Nunes says
Almost two weeks after President Donald Trump’s tweets accusing his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee tried to offer some support by saying that the president’s team was caught up in a U.S. surveillance net.
Representative Devin Nunes said Wednesday that the intelligence community collected multiple conversations involving members of Trump’s transition team during legal surveillance of foreign targets after he won election last year. After Nunes went to the White House to brief Trump, the president told reporters “I somewhat do” feel vindicated by the latest development.
The committee’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, said Nunes’s decision to go to Trump before informing other members of the panel “casts quite a profound cloud” over whether the committee can conduct a proper investigation.
Nunes said he was “alarmed” to discover that the identities of Trump aides were revealed in intelligence community documents. “Details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in an intelligence community report,” he said, adding that he didn’t know if Trump’s “own communications were intercepted.”
Trump said after meeting with Nunes, “I very much appreciate the fact that they found what they found.”
The intercepted communications weren’t captured through wiretaps — the president’s spokesmen had already abandoned that assertion — or through surveillance directed at Trump or his aides, Nunes told reporters at the Capitol before heading to the White House to brief Trump.
Taking a Risk
The Intelligence Committee chairman is taking a risk in providing a measure of cover for the president. His committee is one of the congressional panels that’s supposed to be providing oversight of the investigation by the FBI and other agencies into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential campaign. Nunes — who served on Trump’s transition team — said the surveillance that picked up Trump’s associates wasn’t aimed at Russia.
Schiff said Nunes has to decide whether he’s going to lead the Intelligence Committee or “act as a surrogate of the White House. He cannot do both.” The Democrat said an independent investigation is needed to investigate Russia’s interference and any contacts between those around Trump and the Russian government.
Schiff also said in a statement that Nunes told him the names of U.S. citizens in the intercepted communications “were in fact masked, but that he could still figure out the probable identity of the parties.” He said, “This does not indicate that there was any flaw in the procedures followed by the intelligence agencies.”
The significance of Nunes’s disclosure was questioned even by a key Republican. “If the Trump campaign’s conversations are caught up in surveilling a foreign agent, there are rules about what you can release and who you can unmask,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters. “That’s different than having the Obama administration surveil the Trump campaign.”
Trump and his aides have tried to deflect attention from the probe of Russian meddling by focusing on the assertion that they were the victims of surveillance and through complaints that information about the investigation — and contacts between Trump allies and Russian officials — have been leaked by the intelligence community.
Trump opened the debate over spying on his transition team on March 4, asserting that former President Barack Obama tapped his phones. His spokesman later said that shouldn’t be taken literally and referred generally to having his team under surveillance. FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence committee this week that “I have no information that supports those tweets.”
It was previously disclosed that U.S. intelligence agencies had picked up conversations between Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump’s inauguration. Flynn was fired in February after making contradictory statements to Vice President Mike Pence about those discussions.
In his testimony this week, Comey said the FBI’s probe “includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said before Nunes briefed Trump that he didn’t know more than what the chairman told reporters but “I do think this is a startling revelation.”
Nunes said his panel asked U.S. intelligence agencies for details on members of Trump’s team whose communications may have been intercepted by U.S. spy agencies.
In a separate development Wednesday, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee joined with the top Democrat on the panel to ask the Trump administration to turn over all documents detailing Flynn’s contacts with, and payments from foreign sources, including people connected to the Kremlin.
Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, asked for all relevant documents by April 3.
Flynn is facing new scrutiny for previously undisclosed work benefiting the interests of the Turkish government.