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President Donald Trump said he felt “somewhat” vindicated by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ announcement on Wednesday that he had seen reports that the intelligence community had “incidentally collected” information about Trump’s transition team.
Asked at the White House if he felt vindicated, Trump said: “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found. I somewhat do.”
Nunes, a California Republican, said during a brief press conference that 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.
But in a later press conference outside the White House, where he had briefed the president on his findings, Nunes did not stand by Trump’s claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped phones at Trump Tower – an accusation he has stuck by without providing evidence.
“No, no, no, no,” Nunes said. “That did not happen. I’ve said this for many, many weeks, including the day after, a couple days after, in front of the press. That never happened.”
However, he said he could not be sure whether Obama had ordered any surveillance of Trump during the transition period between November and January. He also said he had “no idea” whether the collection of information about the transition team 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.
In his earlier press conference, Nunes told reporters he believed the information was collected legally under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He said he did not know if the surveillance consisted of phone calls, but that the intelligence reports he had seen “clearly show” Trump and his team were “monitored.” He added that the White House was unaware of the information he was providing to the media.
Nunes, who was a member of Trump’s transition team himself, is leading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s effort to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election.
During a hearing on Monday, FBI Director James Comey told the committee that the bureau had been investigating potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government since late July. Comey also said the Department of Justice could provide no evidence to back up Trump’s explosive claim that Obama wiretapped him.
In his press conference outside the White House, Nunes was asked whether it was inappropriate to brief the president on information that could be related to an ongoing investigation into members of his administration and campaign team.
Nunes said he did not believe so.
“Because what I saw had nothing to do with Russia and nothing to do with 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.”
Nunes did not answer a question about whether he was trying to give the president “political cover” for the unproven wiretapping claim by making his revelations public.
Nunes said he and Trump discussed the concerns “that I had with incidental collection and how it relates to his transition team.” Nunes said he hoped to have more information on the subject by Friday.
“I’m not drawing any conclusion,” Nunes said. “I’m just telling the president what exists in the intelligence reports.
“What I’ve read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity, perhaps legal, but I don’t know that it’s right,” he added. “But let us get all the reports. … I think the president is concerned, and he should be. I think he’d like to see these reports.”
Evan McMullin, a former CIA operative who ran an independent presidential campaign in 2016, 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.”
John Weaver, the chief strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign, tweeted that it seemed as if Nunes “could be leaking classified information left and right” by discussing the intelligence reports publicly.