Republican Nunes Tries to Give Trump Cover on Wiretap Claim

Almost two weeks after President Donald Trump’s tweets accusing his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee tried to offer some support by saying that the president’s team was caught up in a U.S. surveillance net.

Representative Devin Nunes said Wednesday that the intelligence community collected multiple conversations involving members of Trump’s transition team during legal surveillance of foreign targets after he won election last year. After Nunes went to the White House to brief Trump, the president told reporters “I somewhat do” feel vindicated by the latest development.

The committee’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, said Nunes’s decision to go to Trump before informing other members of the panel “casts quite a profound cloud” over whether the committee can conduct a proper investigation.

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.”

Trump said after meeting with Nunes, “I very much appreciate the fact that they found what they found.”

The intercepted communications weren’t captured through wiretaps -- the president’s spokesmen had already abandoned that assertion -- or through surveillance directed at Trump or his aides, Nunes told reporters at the Capitol before heading to the White House to brief Trump.

Taking a Risk

The Intelligence Committee chairman is taking a risk in providing a measure of cover for the president. His committee is one of the congressional panels that’s supposed to be providing oversight of the investigation by the FBI and other agencies into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential campaign. Nunes -- who served on Trump’s transition team -- said the surveillance that picked up Trump’s associates wasn’t aimed at Russia.

Schiff said Nunes has to decide whether he’s going to lead the Intelligence Committee or “act as a surrogate of the White House. He cannot do both.” The Democrat said an independent investigation is needed to investigate Russia’s interference and any contacts between those around Trump and the Russian government.

Schiff also 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.”

Significance Questioned

The significance of Nunes’s disclosure was questioned even by a key Republican. "If the Trump campaign’s conversations are caught up in surveilling a foreign agent, there are rules about what you can release and who you can unmask,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters. “That’s different than having the Obama administration surveil the Trump campaign.”

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. FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence committee this week that “I have no information that supports those tweets.”

Flynn Intercepted

It was previously disclosed that U.S. intelligence agencies had picked up conversations between Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump’s inauguration. Flynn was fired in February after making contradictory statements to Vice President Mike Pence about those discussions.

In his testimony this week, Comey said the FBI’s probe “includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said before Nunes briefed Trump that he didn’t know more than what the chairman told reporters but “I do think this is a startling revelation.”

Nunes said his panel asked U.S. intelligence agencies for details on members of Trump’s team whose communications may have been intercepted by U.S. spy agencies.

New Scrutiny

In a separate development Wednesday, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee joined with the top Democrat on the panel to ask the Trump administration to turn over all documents detailing Flynn’s contacts with, and payments from foreign sources, including people connected to the Kremlin.

Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, asked for all relevant documents by April 3.

Flynn is facing new scrutiny for previously undisclosed work benefiting the interests of the Turkish government.

Chaffetz and Cummings are seeking documents related to Flynn’s security clearance applications and contacts and payments from Russian, Turkish and any other foreign sources including the Kremlin-backed media outlet RT, dating from Flynn’s 2014 retirement from the Defense Intelligence Agency to the present. They also want documents connected to Flynn’s vetting for the national security post, his work with a speaker’s bureau and any documentation that Flynn sought U.S. approvals for payments from foreign sources.

Democrats on the House committee last week released documents showing Flynn received more than $45,000 from RT for taking part in a December 2015 gala where he sat at President Vladimir Putin’s table.

Price Floyd, a spokesman for Flynn, said the retired lieutenant general “both informed and fully briefed” the Defense Intelligence Agency about his Russia trip beforehand and when he returned.

Other documents showed that Flynn received $11,250 for a 2015 speaking engagement in Washington for Kaspersky Government Security Solutions, Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of a Russian cybersecurity firm; and an $11,250 payment from Volga-Dnepr Airlines.

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House Intel chairman: Trump's personal communications may have been collected

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes set off a stunning new political controversy Wednesday by revealing that communications of President Donald Trump and associates may have been picked up after the election by intelligence agencies conducting surveillance of foreign targets.

Nunes hurried to the White House to personally brief Trump on the revelations, after talking to the press but without sharing the information with Democrats. His Democratic counterpart on the committee -- Rep. Adam Schiff of California -- warned that his colleague had cast a "profound cloud" over their effort to investigate Russian attempts to interfere in the election.

The comments by Nunes do not appear to support Trump's claims, debunked by FBI Director James Comey, that he was wiretapped by his predecessor President Barack Obama. Rather, they appear to relate to conversations between Trump or associates and people who were targeted by FISA warrants -- that Nunes said did not appear to be illegal.

But the President was asked by reporters if he feels vindicated by the visit from Nunes and answered: "I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do, I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found."

Another day of shocking drama intensified the intrigue and uncertainty sparked by Trump's feud with intelligence agencies, his accusations of shady practices by his predecessor and the wider question of the Trump campaign's links with Russia that are currently the focus of an investigation by the FBI.

Nunes told reporters the conversations were "incidentally" collected as part of intelligence sweeps focusing on other people and implied that Trump was not the target of the surveillance operation.

He said he discovered accounts of conversations related to Trump and his associates when he was reviewing intelligence reports brought to him by an unidentified person -- and said the information was not related to Russia.

"This is a normal, incidental collection, based on what I could collect," Nunes said. "This appears to be all legally collected foreign intelligence under" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Nevertheless, Nunes said he alerted House Speaker Paul Ryan about the collection before he headed to the White House, adding: "I'm actually alarmed by it." Democrats on the committee said they were not informed of Nunes' finding before he spoke with the media.

Generally, American citizens who are caught up in surveillance of foreign targets are not identified by name in intelligence reports. But Nunes' announcement raises the question of whether the President-elect or associates were identified in intelligence reports circulating in the covert community.

A House member on the Intelligence Committee told CNN the communications in question were senior-level people talking about Trump, not Trump himself.

Nunes later told CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper" that "President-elect Trump and his team were put into intelligence reports."

"Clearly there is a lot of information in the reports that I've seen, which were dozens, that would lead me to believe that the last administration and numerous agencies had a pretty good idea of what President-elect Trump was up to and what his transition team was up to and who they were meeting with," Nunes told Tapper.

Democrats in the dark
In a news conference, Schiff expressed deep concern that committee members were not told by Nunes about the revelations before he briefed the press or went to the White House.

"If the chairman is going to continue to go to the White House instead of his own committee, there is no way we can continue to conduct this investigation," he said.

"It does underscore the importance of establishing an independent commission," Schiff said.

Schiff said that he and other members of the committee had still not seen the documents that Nunes was referring to. He also said from a conversation with Nunes that there did not appear to have been any "unmasking" of any of the US people mentioned in the intercepts.

"All of us are in the dark."

Nunes defended rushing to brief the President because the reports he read have nothing to do with Russia, but he said the investigation he is conducting into Russian interference in the election would look at how Trump's name got into the intelligence reports.

"Because what I saw has nothing to do with Russia and has nothing to do with the Russian investigations, (and) has everything to do with possible surveillance activities ... the President needs to know these intelligence reports are out there and I have a duty to tell him that," Nunes said.

But in an interview with CNN's Kate Bolduan on "Erin Burnett OutFront," Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier slammed Nunes as a "presidential whisperer" undermining the committee's investigation and accused the White House of planning the day's events.

"This was pure theater," Speier said. "I think in many respects it was probably orchestrated by the White House."

Still no sign of wiretapping
Two weeks ago, Trump asked Congress to investigate whether Trump Tower was wiretapped by his predecessor.
On Monday, Nunes' committee held a hearing featuring Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers. At that hearing, Comey confirmed for the first time that his agency is investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and whether any crimes may have been committed during last year's election campaign as part of a wider probe into the hacking of Democratic servers and the Clinton campaign.

Also at that hearing, Comey said he had seen no evidence so far of the specific allegation of wiretapping Trump Tower.

Nunes at his news conference said he did not know whether the "incidental collection" happened at Trump Tower, and could not say for certain whether Trump's communications were directly collected. He said the collection included Trump transition officials and that it happened after the election.

Trump Says He Feels ‘Somewhat’ Vindicated by House Intel Chairman’s Disclosure on ‘Incidental’ Surveillance

President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday he feels "somewhat" vindicated after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes' revelation that he has seen reports from the U.S. intelligence community showing communication from members of the transition team — and possibly from the president himself — were "incidentally collected" as part of a broader surveillance effort.

Nunes said he was "alarmed" by the findings and trekked to the White House Wednesday afternoon to personally brief President Trump.

"What I've read bothers me," Nunes told reporters outside the White House after sharing his findings with the president. "And I think it should bother the president himself and his team because I think some of it seems to be inappropriate."

"I appreciate him coming over," Trump said when asked by reporters about the visit.

Spicer called Nunes' claims a "startling revelation" and lambasted what he saw as the media's "presumptive" tone of negativity toward the administration on the issue.

Nunes did not share the information with the ranking Democratic member of the intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, before telling reporters or updating the White House. He said the intelligence agencies will have to provide the reports to the intelligence committee in order for any Democrats to see them.

Schiff told reporters in an impromptu press conference later Wednesday that his Republican counterpart's actions jeopardized the credibility of the committee's ongoing investigation.

"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. Because he cannot do both," Schiff said.

Schiff has not seen the reports that Nunes briefed reporters, the House Speaker, and the president on Wednesday and said he could not verify their contents.

Schiff also told NBC News' Chuck Todd that there is "more than circumstantial" evidence of collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Russians.

Wednesday's back-and-forth centered, in part, on "incidental collection" of information which occurs when a foreigner under surveillance calls an American, and that conversation is picked up. The American side of the conversation is usually blacked out in any intelligence report that is generated.

However, the American's name and what he or she said can be "unmasked" if there is evidence of a crime, or if the information is needed to understand the foreign intelligence.

Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, testified to Congress this week that 20 people at the agency, including him, have the authority to unmask the American side of an intercepted conversation.

Earlier in the week, Nunes said evidence was so far lacking for the president's claims that former President Barack Obama illegally ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower before the November election. On Monday, FBI Director James Comey, in testimony before Congress Monday, refuted Trump's claim that Obama wiretapped his communications.

The FBI, the NSA, the Department of Justice, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have all said they've seen no evidence to support Trump's claims.

Nunes, did not explain the change in tone during a press conference at the White House on Wednesday.

He told reporters he saw "some level of surveillance activity, perhaps legal, but I don't know if it's right."

The collections were not related to investigations into Russia and its alleged connections to the Trump campaign, Nunes said.

Nunes told reporters the collection appeared to be "normal" and "all legally collected foreign intelligence under" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

"I believe it was all done legally. I think it was all obtained legally. The question is was it masked," Nunes told reporters earlier in the day.

He would not identify the source of this material and implied he had seen it independently. He said he briefed House Speaker Paul Ryan about the documents Wednesday morning.

Legal experts say the incidental collection of U.S. government officials' communications in intelligence surveillance is routine, and on its own, does not indicate anything about who is the target of such surveillance.

Generally, it is illegal for U.S. officials to publicly disclose the targets of FISA warrants, unless pre-approved by a court or if declassified through the executive branch process.

Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer for the CIA and the NSA, told NBC News that the fact that an American was picked up in surveillance of foreigners "in and of itself, doesn't mean a thing. All it means that a person on watch is talking to a U.S. person. The general rule is that the U.S. person identity is minimized, so all you have is the one side, unless a crime has been committed or the identity of the American is necessary to understand the intelligence."

Deitz said he thought it was "rather interesting," that more than one person on Trump's transition team were picked up, because it's not that common for Americans to be talking to foreign surveillance targets.

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