On Thursday, the New York Times reported that two Trump administration officials “helped provide” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes with documents that Nunes had described last Wednesday, citing only unidentified “sources,” as evidence that Trump and/or his advisers may have been surveilled inappropriately by Obama administration intelligence officials. The Times report has put the past week’s worth of events in Washington into a sharper context that does not reflect well on Nunes and the White House’s credibility, but what’s still unclear is why any of the deceit was necessary at all.
On March 20, a “senior White House official” told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza to “watch Nunes” at a House hearing because Nunes was going to raise the issue of “backdoor surveillance” having potentially been used against Trump and/or his advisers.
On March 21, a Trump administration official showed Nunes classified intelligence documents dating to the November-January presidential transition period—documents that had been flagged by another Trump administration official—in an office building on White House grounds.
On March 22, Nunes announced on Capitol Hill that Obama administration officials may have behaved in potentially inappropriate ways during the transition period, attributing his findings to documents he’d been shown by “sources” and not mentioning where the document reveal occurred.
I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition. Details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.
Said Nunes: “I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show the president elect and his team were at least monitored.”
Nunes explained that he’d learned that information about Trump and his transition team had been “incidentally collected” during surveillance of foreign figures, which is legal. But, he said, details about these Trump-related individuals and their identities had then been collated and circulated in intelligence reports. Nunes described the circulation of this material as potentially “inappropriate” because it could have been motivated by political concerns rather than legitimate intelligence goals. (What Nunes was describing also seemingly could have constituted the illegal practice of intentional “reverse targeting”—surveilling U.S. citizens by targeting foreigners you think they might be talking to—but he did not say definitively that he thought reverse targeting had occurred.)
This revelation mattered because it seemed to support—in a very broad and tenuous way—Trump’s random, inaccurate, and still unproven early-March Twitter assertion that President Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower. And because of Nunes’ vague answers to reporters’ questions about “communications” and his use of terms like monitored, many observers were left with the impression that Nunes was suggesting Trump and his associates may have been actually recorded on surveilled calls.
In taking questions after his March 22 announcement, Nunes said he planned to brief Trump on his discovery. “The administration isn’t aware of this,” he said, “so I need to make sure I go over there and tell them what I know. Because it involves them.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer, for his part, averred immediately after Nunes’ March 22 announcement that the White House didn’t know any details about what Nunes had uncovered. Said Spicer:
The media has more information than we do at this point … I don’t know what [Nunes] knows. That’s why, apparently, he’s coming up to share his findings with the President. At least that’s what he said … Until Chairman Nunes briefs [Trump], we don’t know what he knows.
As promised, later on March 22, Nunes went to the White House and spoke to Trump. Trump then told reporters, in reference to his tweeted allegations about Trump Tower wiretapping, that he felt somewhat vindicated by Nunes’ briefing.
The next day, March 23, Spicer reacted to speculation that the White House might have fed Nunes information by asserting that it would have been absurd for Nunes to have briefed the president on information the White House itself had given him.
I don’t know what he actually briefed the President on, but I don’t know why he would come up to brief the President on something that we gave him … I don’t know that that makes sense … It doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense. So I’m not aware of it, but it doesn’t really pass the smell test.
Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that night, Nunes reiterated that he’d felt a “duty and obligation” to alert the president to what he’d found in the documents he’d seen.
On March 24, Nunes clarified to reporters that he didn’t know whether Trump/Trump associates had been participants in surveilled conversations or had merely been discussed during surveilled conversations between two foreign parties.
On the same day, Spicer said that he was “not aware of where [Nunes] got the documents from.”
Nothing really happened on March 25 or March 26. Everyone watched the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga won.
On March 27, CNN broke the news that Nunes’ March 21 document review took place on White House grounds. Nunes confirmed CNN’s report. At this time, though, the identity of the individual he’d met with at the White House was still unknown, and Nunes told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that his source was an “intelligence official,” not “a White House staffer,” in Lake’s words. (This appears to have been a flat-out lie—but we’ll get to that in a sec.)
Later on Monday, Spicer said he had no information about Nunes’ White House meeting other than what had been stated in “public comments” by others. Spicer also pointed reporters to Nunes’ claim to Lake that he did not meet with White House staff.
On March 29, Spicer said he had made internal inquiries about who in the White House might have approved Nunes’ visit but had not yet been able to find out.
On March 30—Thursday—House Speaker Paul Ryan said Nunes had told him his source was “a whistleblower-type person.” Also on Thursday, the Times reported that that Nunes’ March 21 meeting was with an employee of the White House Counsel’s Office and that the original source of the documents they reviewed was a prominent staffer at the National Security Council, an entity whose purpose is to advise the president.
Put simply, the problem here is that Nunes stated explicitly on March 22 that the Trump administration was not aware of the documents that it turns out he had actually been shown by a Trump administration staffer on the White House campus on March 21. Sean Spicer, meanwhile, said on March 22 that the White House did not have information that Nunes had in fact received at the White House on March 21.
Where does this leave us? Well, Nunes looks pretty bad. After Thursday’s Times story broke, he insisted to Eli Lake that he has sources besides the White House for the claims he made on March 22, saying he had “use[d] the White House to help to confirm what I already knew.” Even if that’s true, he was clearly not honest when he told Lake he hadn’t met with a White House staffer. Spicer has some plausible deniability, since the White House is a big operation and there’s no evidence that he personally knew, on March 22, about the Nunes White House meeting that had taken place the previous night. We also don’t know if Donald Trump personally had been made aware of the reports Nunes was shown on March 21 before Nunes visited the next day.
Someone at the White House, though, by definition knew that Nunes had visited on March 21, and Ryan Lizza reports that a “senior White House official” knew as early as March 20 that Nunes would publicly accuse the Obama administration of having acted inappropriately via “backdoor surveillance.” At best, Spicer made or repeated false claims—telling reporters “we don’t know what [Nunes] knows” on March 21; citing Nunes’ claim to have not met with a “White House staffer” on Monday—because he was uninformed on a crucial matter. At worst, he was informed, and lied. Don’t forget: On March 23, Spicer described a question about Nunes having possibly briefed Trump on information he’d received from the White House as a ludicrous scenario that didn’t “pass the smell test.” Whether or not it passes the smell test, we now know it’s what actually happened.
Meanwhile, it’s still very much up in the air whether the documents that Nunes saw prove that the Obama administration did anything improper. All we have to go on right now is his description of reports that cover what may have been no more than the perfunctory documentation of Trump-related gossip by legal foreign surveillance targets. We don’t know how widely these reports were disseminated or whether there truly was no legitimate reason for information about Trump-related individuals to be included in them.
The amazing thing about this—in addition, of course, to the fact that it was originally provoked by the president declaring, with no justification, that his predecessor had ordered the wiretapping of his apartment—is that there is not necessarily anything improper about the White House showing Devin Nunes intelligence material involving Trump transition figures.* Nunes is the chairman of a congressional intelligence committee investigating the subject and has a security clearance. Indeed, shortly after Thursday’s Times story broke, the White House announced in what appears to be a face-saving move that it has invited all members of the Senate and House intel committees to view documents, which seem, going by the White House’s description, to be the same ones Nunes saw.
(*Update, 11 a.m.: National security reporter and Century Foundation fellow Barton Gellman writes in an illuminating post that while Nunes “holds clearances sufficient to receive [the material at issue] through proper channels,” there may have been improper or even illegal aspects to the way the Trump administration presented it to him and the way he subsequently discussed it in public. Gellman told me in an email that he’s not aware of any rule, though, that would’ve prohibited the White House from having initiated this entire process by inviting the entire House committee to review the documents.)
So what was the point of all of this subterfuge and misdirection? Why did Nunes and at least some White House staffers work together to promote a vague claim about surveillance while obscuring the fact that the White House was that claim’s source? Why didn’t Nunes simply set up a nonsecret meeting at the White House in which he and the rest of his committee could have reviewed the reports that the Trump administration had flagged? The only answer I can come up with is that “Nunes Discovers Secret Whistleblower Documents That Validate Trump Wiretap Claim” is a more Trump- and Nunes-friendly headline than “Trump Administration Gives Committee Documents That May or May Not Prove Anything.” Given how quickly the secret-whistleblower cover story seems bound to have fallen apart, though, it all seems like a waste of time.
Whether this harebrained plan was coordinated with anyone close to Trump, or Trump himself, we don’t yet know. Now we wait to find that out—to see how much deeper the White House and Nunes have dug themselves into this unnecessary hole.