By Austin Wright
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes declared Wednesday that members of Donald Trump’s transition team, possibly including Trump himself, were under inadvertent surveillance following November’s presidential election.
The White House and Trump’s allies immediately seized on the statement as vindication of the president’s much-maligned claim that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower phones — even though Nunes himself said that’s not what his new information shows.
Democrats, meanwhile, cried foul.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, cast doubt on Nunes’ claims in a fiery statement and blasted the chairman for not first sharing the information with him or other committee members.
Schiff also slammed Nunes for briefing the White House on Wednesday afternoon given that the Intelligence Committee is in the middle of an investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, including possible collusion with the Trump team.
“The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House, because he cannot do both,” Schiff said at a news conference Wednesday.
“And unfortunately,” he added, “I think the actions of today throw great doubt into the ability of both the chairman and the committee to conduct the investigation the way it ought to be conducted.”
Nunes set off the firestorm with a news conference earlier in the day in which he described the surveillance of Trump aides through what’s called “incidental collection,” something he noted was routine and legal. Such collection can occur when a person inside the United State communicates with a foreign target of U.S. surveillance. In such cases, the identities of U.S. citizens are supposed to be shielded — but can be “unmasked” by intelligence officials under certain circumstances.
Nunes, himself a Trump transition member, said a “source” had brought him evidence showing members of the Trump transition team had been unmasked — and that their identities had been revealed in U.S. intelligence reports. Nunes had previously raised questions about the unmasking of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whose communications with Russia’s ambassador were intercepted by the U.S. government and whose identity was leaked to the news media.
Nunes suggested this unmasking might have been done for political reasons, saying the evidence he had seen had been widely disseminated across the intelligence community and had “little or no apparent intelligence value.” He added that he was trying to get more information by Friday from the FBI, CIA and NSA.
“I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show that the president-elect and his team were, I guess, at least monitored,” the California Republican told reporters. “It looks to me like it was all legally collected, but it was essentially a lot of information on the president-elect and his transition team and what they were doing.” He said the information he had seen was not related to the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Later in the day, Schiff said Nunes’ claims might not be all that they appear.
“In my conversation late this afternoon, the chairman informed me that most of the names in the intercepted communications were in fact masked, but that he could still figure out the probable identity of the parties,” Schiff said. “This does not indicate that there was any flaw in the procedures followed by the intelligence agencies. Moreover, the unmasking of a U.S. person’s name is fully appropriate when it is necessary to understand the context of collected foreign intelligence information.”
Other Democrats also took issue with Nunes’ decision to go straight to Trump.
Rep. Jim Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Nunes’ trip to the White House “raises all sorts of questions.”
“What if it’s one of the president’s people who is being investigated?” the Connecticut Democrat said in an interview. “Is he going to damage the investigation? It all feels very, very odd.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), another member of the intelligence panel, said he was “troubled.”
“The House Intelligence Committee is charged with investigating Russia’s interference into our election and whether any U.S. persons were involved,” Swalwell said in a statement. “The chairman’s actions and closeness to a president whose campaign is under federal investigation have gravely damaged the Investigation’s credibility.”
At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer read from Nunes’ statement during a press briefing, showing how eager Trump’s team was to amplify the remarks.
A political action committee associated with Trump, the Great America PAC, sent out a mass fundraising email claiming Trump’s wiretapping claims had proved accurate. Donald Trump Jr. also posted a message to Instagram crowing about Nunes’ comments.
And Trump himself said at the White House that he feels “somewhat” vindicated.
During his press briefing, Nunes said he did not know yet whether the Trump transition officials who were “unmasked” were communicating from Trump Tower. Earlier this month, Trump claimed in a series of Tweets that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of the phones at Trump Tower — something Nunes reiterated on Wednesday he had no evidence of.
The White House has sought to recast Trump’s original tweets not as a specific claim about Obama ordering a wiretap but as a general reference to all possible surveillance of Trump aides.
Nunes said he briefed House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on the information on Wednesday morning before heading to the White House to brief the president.
His committee is set to hold a public hearing next Tuesday with members of the Obama administration, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump in January after refusing to defend his first travel ban executive order in court.
They are almost certain to face questions on the matter.
FBI Director James Comey appeared before the panel on Monday and confirmed that the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation in July into Russia’s election meddling, including possible coordination with the Trump campaign.