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Rep. Devin Nunes on Wednesday threw a huge wrench into the middle of the investigations surrounding President Donald Trump, Trump’s claims of being wiretapped by his predecessor, and Russia’s meddling in the US election.
And he now finds himself in a central role after making Republicans and Democrats alike scratch their heads over what appeared to be an unprecedented move.
Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, called for a sudden 1 p.m. ET press gathering Wednesday, with its subject unclear. But once it began, he fired off what sounded like a bombshell revelation: The intelligence community, he said, had “incidentally collected” information on the Trump transition team during the transition period.
The California Republican went on to say the collection occurred on “numerous occasions” and was not related to the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.
“Details about US persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting,” Nunes said.
The information he spoke of was collected legally, in his view, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and he said he did not know whether the surveillance consisted of phone calls but that the intelligence reports he had seen “clearly show” Trump and his team were “monitored.”
Another wrinkle: The White House, he said, was unaware of what he was describing to the press. So after the conclusion of his impromptu briefing, he went to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to alert the president and his administration.
Following his White House meeting, Nunes stood outside for another press conference. While he said this information did not in any way prove Trump’s inflammatory, evidence-free Twitter claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped phones at Trump Tower before the election, Nunes said he had “no idea” whether the collection was intentional spying on behalf of the government.
“We won’t know that until we get to the bottom of did people ask for the unmasking of additional names in President Trump’s transition team,” he said.
A member of Trump’s transition team, Nunes finds himself leading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s effort to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election. It was during a hearing Monday in front of Nunes’ committee that FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau had been investigating potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government since late July. Comey also said the FBI and the Department of Justice could provide no evidence to back up Trump’s explosive claim that Obama wiretapped him.
But Nunes, in his White House press conference, said he found nothing wrong with briefing the president on information that could be related to an ongoing investigation into members of his administration and campaign team.
“Because what I saw had nothing to do with Russia and the Russian investigation,” Nunes said. “It has everything to do with possible surveillance activities, and the president needs to know these intelligence reports are out there, and I have a duty to tell him that.”
Many others didn’t see it this way.
Luke Russert, a former Capitol Hill reporter for NBC, said that the episode was “insane” and that in seven years covering Congress he “never saw something like this from” an intelligence chair.
“This is very dangerous. I have trouble seeing somebody like Mike Rogers doing this,” Russert tweeted, referring to the former chairman of that committee. “Intel Chairmen don’t act like this.”
Evan McMullin, a former CIA operative who ran as an independent in the 2016 presidential campaign, said that with Nunes saying the communications were “incidentally collected,” the real question was, “Who was Trump talking to?”
“If what Devin Nunes says is true, Trump was communicating with persons of intelligence or criminal interest,” he tweeted. “This is Devin Nunes doing President Trump and Congressional Republicans a favor by muddying the waters on the Trump/Russia investigation.”
Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who hosts MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” tweeted that Nunes’ actions were cause for him to be removed as chair of the committee. And David Jolly, a former Republican congressman who has been fiercely critical of Trump in recent days, tweeted that Nunes and the entirety of the House GOP had “zero credibility now.”
“Blew it,” he wrote. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, he continued, had become “the cerebral hero of this investigation.”
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Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, seemed flabbergasted about Nunes’ move during an early-evening press conference in which he essentially said Nunes’ Wednesday moves soiled their panel’s investigation.
The California Democrat said he hadn’t seen or heard of the reports Nunes spoke of before he discussed the matter with the media, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Trump.
“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’s going to act as a surrogate of the White House,” Schiff said. “Because he cannot do both.”
He would not say whether Nunes had disclosed classified information, but he did call the disclosure “highly irregular and probably inappropriate.”
“Unfortunately I think the actions of today throw great doubt into the ability of both the chairman and the committee to conduct the investigation,” he said. “I’ve expressed these grave concerns with the chairman.”
Schiff said the disclosure heightened the necessity for an investigation to take place by a fully independent body. He even went as far to suggest the move could be a part of a broader conspiracy.
“I’m not sure what the point of this extraordinary process is, and I have to hope that this is not part of a broader campaign by the White House aimed to deflect” from Comey’s testimony, he said.
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Trump’s allies took the Wednesday news as word that the president was vindicated for his earlier assertion about Obama, which earned him scorn across the political spectrum and led the sitting FBI director to publicly rebuke the claims.
Fox News host Sean Hannity took to Twitter after the Nunes episode to declare victory over the “destroy Trump media” and asked whether anyone doubted that American journalism was “dead.”
“Devin Nunes confirms SURVEILLANCE VS @POTUS,” he wrote. “Sara Carter, John Solomon, @seanhannity right again. Destroy Trump media wrong again.”
He later added, mentioning White House chief strategist Steve Bannon: “Any doubts journalism in America is DEAD? Alt left propaganda destroy @realDonaldTrump media is the opposition party. Bannon correct.”
Asked about the Nunes revelations after meeting with the intelligence chair, Trump expressed his appreciation for the California Republican rushing to tell him what he found.
Did he feel vindicated for his widely panned claims?
“I somewhat do,” he said.