WASHINGTON –Private communications of Donald Trump and his presidential transition team may have been scooped up by American intelligence officials monitoring other targets and improperly distributed throughout spy agencies, the chairman of the House intelligence committee said Wednesday – an extraordinary public airing of often-secret information that brought swift protests from Democrats.
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes’ comments led the committee’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, to renew his party’s calls for an independent probe of Trump campaign links to Russia in addition to the GOP-led panel’s investigation. Schiff also said he had seen “more than circumstantial evidence” that Trump associates colluded with Russia.
In back-to-back news conferences at the Capitol and then the White House – where he had privately briefed the president – Nunes said he was concerned by officials’ handling of the communications in the waning days of the Obama administration.
He said the surveillance was conducted legally and did not appear to be related to the current FBI investigation into Trump associates’ contacts with Russia or with any criminal warrants. And the revelations, he said, did nothing to change his assessment that Trump’s explosive allegations about wiretaps at Trump Tower were false.
Still, the White House immediately seized on his statements in what appeared to be a co-ordinated public display.
Moments after Nunes spoke on Capitol Hill, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer read his statements from the White House briefing room podium. The California congressman quickly headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to personally brief the president and to address reporters outside the West Wing. Nunes’ decision to brief the president was particularly unusual, given Trump almost certainly has access to the information from his intelligence agencies.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said Nunes’ disclosure could be a “weapon of mass distraction” in light of allegations of co-ordination between Russians and the Trump campaign during the 2016 campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“This could be a lot of theatrics,” said Speier, also a member of the House intelligence committee.
“This is a bizarre situation,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview on MSNBC. “I’m calling for a select committee because I think this back-and-forth shows that Congress no longer has the credibility handle this alone.”
Outside the White House, Nunes said, “What I’ve read bothers me, and I think it should bother the president himself and his team.”
Trump said he felt “somewhat” vindicated by the Republican’s revelations. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found,” he said.
The disclosure came two days after FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed the bureau’s own investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia and rejected Trump’s explosive claims that President Barack Obama wiretapped his New York skyscraper during the election. Comey’s comments came during the intelligence committee’s first public hearing on Russia’s election interference, an investigation being overseen by Nunes
Nunes briefed reporters on the new information without consulting with Schiff, and that did not sit well with the top Democrat on the committee.
Schiff declared he now has “profound doubt” about the integrity and independence of the committee’s probe. He said that “a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way.”
Later, in an interview with MSNBC, Schiff said evidence “that is not circumstantial and is very much worthy of an investigation” exists of Trump associates colluding with Russia as it interfered in last year’s election. He did not outline that evidence.
Nunes said he believed the Trump team’s communications were caught “incidentally.” But he suggested the contents may have been inappropriately disseminated in intelligence reports. He left open the possibility the communications were spread for political reasons. Nunes would not disclose how he received the new information.
It was unclear whether Trump’s own communications were monitored. Nunes initially said “yes” when asked if Trump was among those swept up in the intelligence monitoring, but then said it was only “possible.”
It’s common for Americans to get caught up in U.S. surveillance of foreigners, such as foreign diplomats in the U.S. talking to an American. Typically, the American’s name would not be revealed in a report about the intercepted communications. However, if there is a foreign intelligence value to revealing the American’s name, it is “unmasked” and shared with other intelligence analysts who are working on related foreign intelligence surveillance.
Schiff disputed Nunes’ suggestions that there was improper “unmasking.” He said that after speaking with Nunes, it appeared that the names of Americans were still guarded in the intercepts though their identities could be gleaned from the materials.
Obama administration officials disputed the suggestion that the outgoing administration was improperly monitoring its successors. Ned Price, who served as spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council, said Nunes’ assertions “were nothing more than an attempt to offer a lifeline to a White House caught in its own netting following President Trump’s baseless tweets.”
Matthew Waxman, a national security law professor at Columbia University, said Nunes’ actions “in this case are contributing to, rather than alleviating concerns, about politicization of intelligence.”
Nunes said the information on the Trump team was collected in November, December and January, the period after the election when Trump was holding calls with foreign leaders, interviewing potential Cabinet secretaries and beginning to sketch out administration policy. He said the monitored material was “widely disseminated” in intelligence reports.
Asked whether he believed the transition team had been spied on, Nunes said: “It all depends on one’s definition of spying.”
Nunes did not identify any of the Trump associates he said were “unmasked,” but they are believed to include Michael Flynn, who was fired as White House national security adviser after misleading Vice-President Mike Pence and other top officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.