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.
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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.