White House coy about source of Nunes’ wiretapping evidence


The Nunes disclosure has become something of a sideshow, casting doubt on the House committee’s ability to conduct an impartial investigation and putting an unflattering light on the California Republican. | AP Photo

New and confusing details are slowly emerging about the source of House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes’ declaration last week that Trump transition aides had been inadvertently picked up by intelligence surveillance — and the White House doesn’t appear eager to clear up its role.

Ever since Nunes’ conveniently timed revelation last week — an announcement that President Donald Trump says “somewhat” vindicated his unsubstantiated claim that former President Barack Obama wiretapped him — questions have swirled about whether the White House played a part in getting the evidence in Nunes’ hands.

Story Continued Below

White House press secretary Sean Spicer for days has cast doubt on that idea, while not directly denying it. And a new statement from Nunes on Monday that revealed he obtained the evidence last Tuesday on White House grounds” is putting Trump’s team in an even more awkward position.

“Anything’s possible,” Spicer finally declared at Monday’s press briefing when repeatedly pushed on whether the White House or someone in the administration may have been Nunes’ source.

“What I can tell you, through his public comments, is that he has said that he had multiple sources that he came to a conclusion on, so the degree to which any of those sources weighed on the ultimate outcome of what he came to a decision on I don’t know,” Spicer added.

As the controversy deepens around whether any of Trump’s associates colluded with the alleged Russian effort to interfere in the election, the Nunes disclosure has become something of a sideshow, casting doubt on the House committee’s ability to conduct an impartial investigation and putting an unflattering light on the California Republican.

Nunes, along with other Republicans on the committee, have often appeared eager to chase other stories — like the source of leaks about former national security adviser Michael Flynn, or whether Trump transition officials were improperly unmasked in intelligence reports — than to dig into what is purportedly the subject of their investigation: Russian interference in the election, which the intelligence community concluded was designed to boost Trump.

The latest Nunes episode kicked off in a series of bizarre turns last week.

Nunes told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, apparently after briefing Speaker Paul Ryan, that he had become aware of intelligence reports that had picked up Trump transition officials in “incidental” and legal collection — presumably in conversations with foreigners who were the target of federal surveillance. Nunes insisted the intelligence reports had nothing to do with Russia, and added that while they were legal he still found them troubling. He suggested that some Trump associates were improperly unmasked in the reports (standard practice is to redact the names of U.S. citizens that are caught up in incidental collection).

The revelation conveniently came after Trump discussed his wiretapping accusation with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson the prior week, saying, “you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next 2 weeks.” Spicer was pressed about that declaration last Tuesday – the day before Nunes’ declaration.

During his news conference on Wednesday, Nunes announced he would travel to the White House to brief the president on his finding, which he promptly did. After that, he spoke with reporters again, this time outside the White House.

“So that means I’m right,” Trump told TIME Magazine of the Nunes news on Wednesday, even as Nunes repeated specifically that there was no evidence of wiretapping of Trump’s phone.

“He was vindicating the president,” Spicer said on Thursday of Nunes’ remarks.

Right-wing commentators and publications were quick to tout the announcement as some sort of victory, equating it with proof of Trump’s initial wiretapping allegation. But Nunes almost immediately found himself in hot water.

His two briefings to the press came before alerting other members of his committee, a move he later apologized for. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, slammed Nunes for acting like a tool of the White House. And Republican Sen. John McCain said the House committee had lost its credibility on the investigation.

Questions quickly arose about how, exactly, Nunes had obtained the information and why he felt the need to make it public and brief the president.

When pressed on the matter last week, Spicer first tried to cast doubt on the notion that the documents could have come from the White House.

“I don’t know what he actually briefed the president on, but I don’t know why he would come up to brief the president on something that we gave him,” Spicer said on Thursday. “I don’t know why he would brief the Speaker and then come down here to brief us on something that we would have briefed him on. It doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense. So I’m not aware of it, but it doesn’t really pass the smell test.”

Pressed again during the briefing on Nunes’ trip to the White House, Spicer deployed some humor.

“I don’t know how he got here. I assume in a car,” Spicer said at one point. “But I also don’t track him. I don’t keep his schedule either.

Spicer was also pressed on whether the information had been seen by the White House before.

“I believe that the information that he shared with the president was new,” Spicer said.

The White House also sought to divert attention away from how Nunes came to obtain the information.

“But there seems to be this obsession with the process: how did he get here, when did he go, what was the reaction. At some point, there should be a concern about the substance,” Spicer said. “That’s a very serious revelation that he’s made about what happened during the 2016 election with respect to our side and some of the things that happened. And at some point, I would implore, urge, beg some of you to use some of your investigative skills to look into what actually did happen, why did it happen, what was going on back there, who knew what when.”

On Friday, Spicer admitted he could not rule out the possibility that Nunes obtained the documents from someone in the White House.

“I’m not aware of where he got the documents from. I don’t know,” Spicer said.

But on Monday it was revealed by CNN that Nunes had obtained the information on the White House grounds the night before he made his announcement.

“Chairman Nunes met with his source at the White House grounds in order to have proximity to a secure location where he could view the information provided by the source,” Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said in a statement Monday. “The chairman is extremely concerned by the possible improper unmasking of names of U.S. citizens, and he began looking into this issue even before President Trump tweeted his assertion that Trump Tower had been wiretapped.”

When asked if the source worked for the White House, Nunes’ spokesman told POLITICO: “As for the source’s identity, the Chairman has repeatedly said that in order to protect the source, he will not reveal any information whatsoever about that source.”

Nunes then told Bloomberg on Monday that the source was an intelligence official, not a White House staffer.

Spicer repeatedly referred reporters to those comments on Monday when pressed about how Nunes obtained the information, and why he traveled to the White House to receive it.

“I would refer you to his comments that he’s made,” Spicer said. “He is the one who has discussed what he is reviewing and so I will leave it up to him and not try to get in the middle of that.”

“He has said, from my understanding on the record, that he did not meet with White House staff,” Spicer said at another point.

Spicer later called it “irresponsible” to draw certain inferences from Nunes’ visit.

Spicer could not say how Nunes entered the White House complex to receive the information last week and whether the White House cooperated with his visit.


At sanctuary cities gathering, policymakers vow to become Trump’s ‘worst nightmare’

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and dozens of legislators from around the country are dismissing the Trump administration’s threat to cut millions of dollars in federal funding from sanctuary cities as an illegal maneuver to bully cities into enforcing immigration law, even as Attorney General Jeff Sessions aired that threat Monday from the White House.

“This is nothing new in terms of the threats that the federal administration has been making, but it really is sad that the security of our city, the security of our country, would be put at stake to just meet a campaign promise to a dwindling base,” Mark-Viverito told reporters gathered at Borough of Manhattan Community College for a conference on sanctuary city policy hosted by ThinkProgress.

Story Continued Below

“It is illegal for the federal government to withdraw funds in a punitive fashion from cities that they say are refusing to comply with ill guided policies and laws that they are enacting,” she added.

At Monday’s policy gathering, city officials from around the country weighed their options over how to appropriately defy Trump’s immigration orders. Some of the lawmakers, including representatives from blue cities in red states, described fears of putting targets on their backs by not complying with federal law.

But Mark-Viverito insisted to reporters that leaders of sanctuary cities had a chance to show strength to Washington by coming together.

“Not only is there power in our numbers and in union in our cities, but as municipalities we have the power to secure a number of tools to expand the protection we offer to our immigrant communities, and that is why we are here today,” she said. “We are hoping that we are going to become this administration’s worst nightmare.”

But as the conference was underway, Sessions took to the podium in the White House briefing room to warn that the Department of Justice is ready to hold back nearly $4 billion in funds from going to any sanctuary municipality.

Sanctuary municipalities are cities that do not willfully cooperate with or help to enforce federal immigration laws. In New York City, for example, the New York Police Department for years has declined to use its resources in assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from enforcing immigration law, picking up undocumented people or holding them for ICE to arrest. The city Department of Correction only honors detainer requests for undocumented immigrants who have been charged with a violent crime or are considered a threat to national security.

Sessions on Monday urged cities to reconsider these types of policies, saying they have damaged national security and public safety.

“Unfortunately some states and cities have adopted policies designed to frustrate the enforcement of immigration laws,” Session said. “Including refusing to detain non-felons on federal detainer requests.”

Sessions cited the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a law passed in 1996, which includes a section providing that no state or local entity can in any way restrict its law enforcement officials from communicating with federal immigration authorities about a person’s immigration status.

Sessions said DOJ will now require jurisdictions seeking or applying for any DOJ grants to certify compliance with the law as a condition of receiving those awards.

“[This policy] made clear that failure to remedy violations could result in withholding of grants, termination of grants and disbarment or ineligibility for future grants,” Sessions said.

It is not yet entirely clear how much money the city could be at risk of losing, but Mark-Viverito said the city is within its legal rights to protect its undocumented residents without fear of losing federal funding. She also said her office was reviewing Sessions’ order in order to come up with a proper response, which may include legal action.

“It is our right as a city to decide how our city employees share information with the federal government. If there is no judicial warrant, we will not honor a detainer,” she said.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also issued a defiant statement shortly after Sessions’ comments, insisting that state and local governments have broad authority under the constitution to not participate in any immigration law enforcement. Schneiderman had issued a set of legal guidelines earlier this year for sanctuary jurisdictions in New York, outlining a set of policies which cities can abide by to continue to guard immigrant communities.

“President Trump lacks the constitutional authority to broadly cut off funding to states and cities just because they have lawfully acted to protect immigrant families,” Schneiderman said. “Public safety depends on trust between law enforcement and those they bravely serve; yet, again and again, President Trump’s draconian policies only serve to undercut that trust.”


The Three Lame Stories the Press Writes About Every President



As if powered by a celestial mainspring, the press publishes the same three basic stories about every new presidential administration. Usually up first in their rotation is a breathless beat-sweetener about the incoming vice president. Thanks to his unusual closeness to the boss, chin-stroking reporters and commentators write, the new veep is the most powerful in history. Typically, this story contains more sugar than a big bowl of Lucky Charms: If you were to read a couple of them in one sitting you might well fall into diabetic shock. Mike Pence has already been appraised in such a manner—see CBS News, USA Today, USA Today again, CNN, and the Spectator. Hedging the veep assertion—which is not much different than asserting it—was the Washington Post. “Pence’s influence will hinge not so much on his background and relationships but his job performance,” wrote Joel Goldstein. No kidding!?

The second inevitable wave of stories claim that the administration is “rebooting.” If it’s true that administrations “hit the ground running,” then it follows that all stumble and fall on their fat asses. By cloaking an administration’s desperate do-overs as reboots, the press provides camouflage for incompetents in power. Right now, every soul in the Trump administration is hitting the virtual reset button in their heads in a desperate attempt to recover from the immigration order disaster and the Obamacare repeal crack-up. As if attempting to set some sort of journalistic record, a Washington Post headline had Donald Trump rebooting just three days after his inauguration. Elsewhere on the Trump rebooting front has been a reboot of the National Security Council and a reboot of the Spicer-Trump relationship. Calling for a reboot of the entire administration after just three weeks of Baby Donald’s presidency was Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald F. Seib.

Story Continued Below

Monday’s Washington Post brings us, on Page One above the fold, the third classic of first-100 days reporting: A story about the coming “reorganization“ of government—this time by Prince Jared, the president’s son-in-law. Young Jared, who owes his power to 1) the womb he emerged from and 2) the princess he married, is about to be charged with “sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises,” as the Post puts it. “Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements.”

The reorganization story is such a journalistic staple that I’ve attacked it many times, most recently in January 2012 when President Barack Obama got around to fleshing out his 2011 pledge to streamline the federal bureaucracy. Like Trump, Obama’s reorg promised savings ($3 billion!), a reduced federal workforce (1,000 to 2,000 cut jobs!) and the merger of several trade and business agencies into the Department of Commerce. Presidents have been reorganizing government since Theodore Roosevelt. Political scientist Peri E. Arnold tells us that 11 of 14 20th century presidents sought reorgs at some time during their administrations.

The concept of governmental reorganization has become so musty and shopworn that Trump’s statement heralding his fresh swipe at it—“All Americans, regardless of their political views, can recognize that government stagnation has hindered our ability to properly function, often creating widespread congestion and leading to cost overruns and delays”—could have been issued by any contemporary occupant of the Oval Office. Every president boasts that new economies and innovations can be harvested. Every president claims that the bureaucratic labyrinths can be made straight as a river after the Army Corps of Engineers has its way with it. Every president insists that government can be made to run with the efficiency of a major corporation, which is exactly what Prince Jared told the Post for its story.

Evidence of the Trump administration’s reorg delusions came at the end of the Post story as spokeswoman Hope Hicks invoked her boss’s success in remodeling Central Park’s Wollman skating rink as an example of the miracles to be found in his entrepreneurial trick bag. Never mind, of course, that his Wollman triumph is mostly myth, and the undertaking was tiny. Trump would have us believe that his toe loop of an achievement was a triple Salchow.

Trump won’t succeed in reorganizing the bureaucracy because the bureaucracy is already following its own inertial path, disdainful of his ambitions. Many parts of governmental bureaucracies, as I’ve written before, are beholden to Congress, not the president, or to corporate interests, or to activists. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it succinctly in Commentary in 1971, when he wrote that the bureaucracies “are usually willing to work with the president, but rarely to the point where their perceived interests are threatened. Typically these are rather simple territorial interests: not lose any jurisdiction and, if possible to gain some.” Moynihan wasn’t describing so much the power of the deep state but the inexorable force of the wide and expansive shallow state.

Reorganization, whether proposed by President Jimmy Carter or captained by Vice President Al Gore, has fundamentally been about neutering power sectors the president finds politically threatening or to reap positive publicity by making good on a hoary campaign promise. Trump’s “SWAT team” may make an incendiary splash by heaving flash grenades through the windows at Veterans Affairs or knocking the doors off their hinges with a battering ram at the workforce-training program the young prince has set his eyes on. But the business of government reorganization is mostly about tossing out the current bums and importing your own bums until the next administration arrives to do the same thing.

“Few modern presidents have made any impact on the federal bureaucracies save by creating new ones,” Moynihan wrote. Outside of rewriting stories their predecessors have written many times before, few Washington journalists ever get the joke.


Shafer’s First Law of Journalistic Thermodynamics states that copy cannot be created or destroyed—it can only change form. Send other physical laws to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts are the most powerful email alerts going. My Twitter feed reboots daily. And my RSS feed has been trying to disorganize government since 1981.

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.


Trump strikes down teacher, school regulations

President Trump plopped down in what he called a “child’s desk” Monday afternoon, a fitting setting considering he was about to repeal two Obama-era education rules affecting schoolchildren.

“It’s the smallest desk I’ve ever seen,” the president joked as he traveled from the Oval Office to another room in the White House, where he signed two bills repealing the Education Department’s teacher preparation and school accountability rules.

The teacher preparation regulations included training requirements for educators, and the school accountability rules were meant to gauge schools’ effectiveness.

The rules drew sharp criticism from Republicans, who argued states should have more control over the classroom. This falls in line with the philosophy of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Republicans lawmakers earlier this month voted to strike down the two rules through the Congressional Review Act, which gives them the power to roll back certain regulations. In the Senate, the special procedure prevents the use of the filibuster.

Trump signed the bills Monday, not only eliminating the Obama-era education rules, but also prohibiting future presidents from issuing similar rules.

Repealing these rules will “encourage freedom in our schools,” Trump said.