Nunes’s Trump Surveillance Claim May Damage Him Despite Apology

  • Intelligence chairman apologized to Democrats, aide says
  • McCain says ‘chasm’ on panel shows need for special committee

Nunes Says Trump Team Caught in U.S. Surveillance Net

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes apologized to the panel’s Democrats Thursday for how he disclosed information about surveillance related to Donald Trump, two committee aides said.

By revealing the existence of intelligence intercepts involving the president’s aides, the California Republican gave Trump some fresh ammunition for his so-far unsubstantiated claims of being surveilled. But that move may have come at Nunes’s own expense.

The apology -- which was done behind closed doors -- may not be enough to heal the partisan wounds in Congress. Nunes’s disclosure marked a significant breach of protocol for a panel that does the vast majority of its work behind closed doors, usually in close coordination with the panel’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff of California.

Schiff had no immediate comment on the apology.

On Wednesday, Nunes took the nearly unprecedented step of calling an impromptu press conference to discuss highly classified documents he hadn’t shared with any fellow committee members.

Then, even though his committee is investigating whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had contacts with Russian intelligence, Nunes rushed off to the White House to brief the president in person.

‘Tremendous Chasm’

The incident is raising questions among Democrats, and even a few Republicans, of whether Nunes can remain in his post, and whether he can preside over a nonpartisan inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the U.S. election and related leaks of intelligence.

“This just shows a tremendous chasm between the two senior members of the House Intelligence Committee,” Republican Senator John McCain said Wednesday night on MSNBC. “What we need is a select committee.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, told reporters Thursday that Nunes went “outside the circle of respect” for his committee and the House with his decision to immediately brief the White House.

She called him a “stooge of the president.”

“I think he has demonstrated very clearly that there is no way there can be an impartial investigation under his leadership,” she said. “Chairman Nunes is deeply compromised.”

Nunes’s disclosure -- that U.S. intelligence agencies inadvertently swept up, and in some cases disseminated, conversations of Trump associates -- prompted the president to say he felt vindicated over his tweets accusing the Obama administration of surveilling him and his team.

‘I’m Right’

"That means I’m right," Trump told Time magazine on Wednesday, referring to Nunes’s disclosure.

Democrats are renewing their call for a special committee and perhaps a special prosecutor to investigate any potential links between Trump associates and Russia.

Nunes will need to decide whether he’s running a truly independent inquiry or is a "White House surrogate," Schiff said Wednesday.

"He cannot do both," Schiff told reporters. "Unfortunately, I think 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 later said on "Meet The Press" that evidence of Trump-Russia collusion exists that is more than circumstantial and he repeated calls for an independent commission modeled after the one that investigated the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Multiple Conversations

Nunes said Wednesday that the intelligence community collected multiple conversations involving members of Trump’s transition team during surveillance of foreign targets after he won election last year. He said the surveillance, which wasn’t targeted at Trump or related to Russia, appeared to be entirely legal.

James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers both said Monday that Trump and his aides were never surveilled, nor did the Obama White House try to order any surveillance. 

It’s unclear where Nunes obtained the classified documents he described to reporters. Nunes said he was “alarmed” to discover that the identities of Trump aides were revealed in intelligence community documents. “Details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in an intelligence community report,” he said, adding that he didn’t know if Trump’s “own communications were intercepted.”

Asked Thursday where he got that information, Nunes told reporters, “There’s no way I’m ever going to talk about” the Intelligence Committee’s sources.

“We have different ways that we receive sources,” he said. “Through informants or sources, people that want to come us. There’s legal channels. There’s whistle-blower protections."

Schiff said in a statement that Nunes told him the names of U.S. citizens in the intercepted communications “were in fact masked, but that he could still figure out the probable identity of the parties.” He said, “This does not indicate that there was any flaw in the procedures followed by the intelligence agencies.”

Trump and his aides have tried to deflect attention from the probe of Russian meddling by focusing on the assertion that they were the victims of surveillance and through complaints that information about the investigation -- and contacts between Trump allies and Russian officials -- have been leaked by the intelligence community.

Trump opened the debate over spying on his transition team on March 4, asserting that former President Barack Obama tapped his phones. His spokesman later said that shouldn’t be taken literally and referred generally to having his team under surveillance. Comey told Nunes’s panel on Monday that “I have no information that supports those tweets.”

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