WASHINGTON ― Investigators don’t normally brief the people they’re investigating. But on Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the Republican who’s leading a congressional investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s team colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, went to the White House to talk to the president.
The names of Trump associates — and perhaps even Trump’s own name — appeared in surveillance reports compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies in the final months of the Obama administration, Nunes said he told Trump.
Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a close Trump ally, said the intercepted communications didn’t mention Russia and were therefore unrelated to his investigation.
But Nunes’ briefing with Trump broached the theme of an ongoing FBI investigation ― the president’s and his associate’s connections to foreign powers. And Nunes’ objective appeared political: Deflect attention from Trump and his associates’ ties to Russia, and back up Trump’s claim that he is a victim of “deep state” loyal to former President Barack Obama.
“It is so far beyond the pale for the person who is conducting an investigation to both brief the subject of that investigation and potentially jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the FBI.”
Nunes’ gambit failed. In attempting to put out the Trump-Russia fire, he made much of it worse: In two press conferences on Wednesday, he claimed that Trump’s surrogates ― and maybe the president himself ― were mentioned in reports compiled through legal surveillance, implied that they may have had suspicious contact with agents from a country other than Russia, and potentially disclosed classified information.
And by choosing to brief the president, who’s so closely tied to the investigation, before sharing his new information with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Nunes also raised doubts about his own ability to lead his committee’s probe.
Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Nunes “will need to decide if he is the chairman of an independent investigation or if he’s a surrogate for the White House.”
“If a Democrat had done this, Republicans would have been asking for him to be investigated both for disclosing classified information and for obstructing justice,” said Matthew Miller, a Department of Justice spokesman during the Obama administration. “It is so far beyond the pale for the person who is conducting an investigation to both brief the subject of that investigation and potentially jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the FBI.”
Nunes deflected accusations that he had compromised his impartiality or revealed classified information. “What I saw has nothing to do with Russia and nothing to do with the Russian investigation,” he said. “It has everything to do with possible surveillance activities ... and I have the duty to tell [Trump] that.”
But Nunes’ multiple appearances on Wednesday raise more questions than they answer. And most of the information he revealed doesn’t provide Trump and his associates with the vindication they claim it does.
Here is what Nunes implied, revealed or confirmed:
The Surveillance Was Legal
Nunes told reporters on Wednesday that an unnamed source had provided him with several dozen intelligence reports that named members of the Trump team. At times, Nunes suggested that Trump himself was named in reports, but he backed down when reporters pressed him to confirm that.
The goal of Nunes’ press conference appeared to be to reinforce Trump’s claims that the Obama administration had inappropriately spied on him. But according to the California Republican, the surveillance reports he received came from spying authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ― a measure that allows the FBI to apply for a warrant from the FISA court to monitor suspected agents of a foreign power.
Communications from Trump associates ― and maybe even from Trump himself ― may have been “incidentally” collected, Nunes said. That means that Trump and his associates were not the targets of the surveillance. Their conversations could have been intercepted if they were communicating with the targets of a FISA warrant, or their names could have appeared if they were mentioned by the targets.
Nunes said he took issue with intelligence officials unmasking Trump surrogates who were swept up in the surveillance and named in internal reports, and suggested that decision was an effort by Obama loyalists to impugn the current president.
But Schiff said in a statement that, in fact, the officials had not been named. “[Nunes] 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.
Names are sometimes unmasked in internal reports to provide context for the intercepted communications, he added.
There are times where it is appropriate for intelligence officials to unmask names of people who are not the targets of surveillance, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, told The Associated Press.
Trump’s Team May Have Communicated With Agents Of A Foreign Power Other Than Russia
Nunes told reporters that the surveillance reports he read made no mention of Russia. If the reports were the result of FISA surveillance, as the congressman claimed, the target must have been a suspected agent, or agents, of another foreign power.
Nunes declined to say which foreign power the reports referenced ― but he inadvertently suggested that Trump associates may have communicated with individuals suspected of acting on behalf of at least one foreign country other than Russia.
It’s Not Just Michael Flynn
The public already knows that retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, was intercepted talking to the Russian ambassador about the possibility of easing sanctions against Russia related to its interference in the 2016 election.
But Nunes revealed that there may have been other Trump advisers who were caught up in conversations with foreign agents. The congressman said the material he possesses “goes beyond” communications with the retired general.
A Classified Leak?
During the House Intelligence Committee’s first public hearing about its investigation of Russian election meddling, Republicans ― including Nunes ― tried to shift the focus from the Trump team’s possible ties to Moscow to leaks of classified information related to the FBI’s probe.
But in briefing reporters on the broad contents of intelligence reports, Nunes may have leaked classified information himself.
The FISA court operates in extreme secrecy. The existence of specific warrants and the content of intercepted communications are closely held secrets.
When reporters pressed Nunes for specifics about the individuals named in the surveillance reports, the intelligence committee chairman said he couldn’t elaborate. “It’s all classified information,” he said.
Asked if he had permission from the Justice Department to share his revelations, Nunes brushed off the question. “This was information that was brought to me that I thought the president needed to see.”
Shortly after his first press conference, Nunes headed to the White House to personally brief Trump on his findings. He had alerted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) about his plans, he said.
Trump, who tweeted earlier this month ― without evidence ― that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, said he felt vindicated by Nunes’ disclosure. (Nunes has, however, disavowed Trump’s claim that Obama had literally wiretapped Trump Tower.)
Asked specifically on Wednesday if Obama had tapped Trump’s phone, Nunes said, “That did not happen.”
Nunes’ stunt appeared to do significant damage to an already-fragile working relationship with Schiff, his Democratic counterpart.
“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,” Schiff said on Wednesday evening.
The Democratic lawmaker then called for an independent commission to investigate possible ties between Trump associates and Russia. An independent panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission, he said, would have more investigative resources and would be removed from politics.
It “wouldn’t have one of its chairs go to the White House when it obtained new information,” Schiff noted.
This story has been updated throughout with additional quotes and more information about Nunes’ revelations.