On Wednesday, a discombobulating turn of events began when House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) held a press conference to disclose the existence of “incidental surveillance” of Donald Trump and unspecified associates. Nunes — who served on Trump’s transition team — is currently leading an oversight committee that’s investigating alleged Trump campaign ties with Russia. Instead of commenting upon that subject as expected, Nunes spoke of surveillance that was collected between Election Day and Inauguration Day.
He stated that this information (some that was “personal” in nature) was gathered legally and under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant. Further, Nunes said that this was not related to Russia. However, he remained evasive about subject matter, which sparked memories of Trump’s recent (bogus) wiretapping accusations about Obama and Trump Tower, despite FBI Director James Comey recently testifying that there was no evidence to support the claims.
As the day’s surreal events unfolded, some wondered whether Nunes was intentionally torpedoing his role as committee chair (and maybe his whole career) while providing the basis for an independent prosecutor. For sure, he’s not showing an ability to stay impartial and, instead, is fueling Trump’s beef with U.S. intel, which has seen the president lash out on several occasions.
Of course, Nunes left plenty of speculation in his wake. Was this surveillance collected as part of an unrelated investigation, yet Trump (and associates) were somehow swept up by association? If so, who was being monitored by U.S. intelligence in the first place? And is Nunes actually accusing the U.S. intelligence community of “reverse targeting” — monitoring a foreign party in order to also monitor the American citizens who interact with them — a practice that the Justice Department condemns as illegal on its own website?
Answers to these questions are rough to come by, although an anonymous GOP colleague told CNN that Nunes was “steaming” with anger over the intel reports. Here’s the essence of Nunes’ first presser with a video clip:
“First, 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. Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. And fourth and finally, I want to be clear. None of this surveillance was related to Russia, or the investigation of Russian activities, or of the Trump team.”
House Intel Chair: Intel community incidentally collected info about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition pic.twitter.com/KWRA76MWam
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 22, 2017
Well, no one could figure out what the hell Nunes was doing, but the timeline is important. Trump accused Obama of wiretapping him “in October” and “during the very sacred election process,” whereas Nunes refers to surveillance that purportedly took place after the election and before Trump took office. This distinction didn’t curb any confusion, but at least it shows how Nunes’ words don’t prove Trump’s wiretapping claims.
What’s going on here? Ultimately, Nunes has played a public game by making accusations against the intelligence community that describe legal actions, but nonetheless, spark rampant speculation. Nunes gave his initial presser before hightailing it over to the White House to brief Trump in person about what he saw in over a dozen intelligence reports. Then he bizarrely held a second press conference, in which he expressed “a lot of concern” and said he was “bothered” by what he felt was “inappropriate” surveillance and the “unmasking” of Trump associates. Nunes awkwardly rambled in front of reporters for a full thirteen minutes, stressing how uncomfortable he felt about this “normal intelligence reporting.”
The entire clip below is fascinating to watch, especially for Nunes’ willingness to undergo this public process while insisting that the FBI was unresponsive to his questions (yet the NSA was cooperating). Some also believe that Nunes may have violated the law shortly after the 10:00 minute mark. That is, he revealed that multiple FISA warrants “are out there,” which prompted social media freakouts (as this may have been disclosure of classified information). However, it wasn’t clear whether he was talking in a general sense or about someone specifically related to Trump:
“I was able to determine that it looks like it was legal collection, incidental collection, that made itself into intelligence reports. It has to do with FISA, and there are multiple FISA warrants that are out there, but there’s nothing criminal at all involved.”
At no point did Nunes vindicate Trump’s baseless wiretapping claims against Obama, but Trump gave a quick media reaction following Nunes’ visit to say that, in fact, he did feel “somewhat” vindicated by the news.
— CNN (@CNN) March 22, 2017
Meanwhile, NSA surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden picked up on the aforementioned reverse-targeting implications from Nunes (who was cagey during his second presser when asked if U.S. intel was “spying on Trump”). Snowden weighed in with his thoughts on the definition of spying and targeting.
Throughout all of this, Nunes’ tactics were unorthodox — he never clued in his Democratic colleagues but spoke with everyone else, including Paul Ryan, Trump, and the press. Essentially, he paid a friendly visit to the president even though he’s currently the subject of an investigation that Nunes is leading. This became the subject of a discussion between MSNBC’s Brian Williams and former CIA Chief of Staff Jeremy Bash, who once acted as counsel to the House Intel Committee. Bash was aghast at what he saw on television:
“I have never heard of a chairman of an oversight committee going to brief the President of the United States about concerns he has about things he’s read in intelligence reports. The job of the committee is to do oversight of the executive branch, not to bring them into their investigation or tip them off to things that they might be looking at. It’s very concerning. This is a true breakdown, Brian, in the entire oversight process.”
Ex-House Intel counsel: Nunes briefing Trump is a “breakdown in the entire oversight process,” other committee members likely “horrified” pic.twitter.com/aRn8dB3Ia6
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 22, 2017
For what it’s worth, Williams assessed that Nunes “couldn’t have injected more suspicion into his remarks” and, clearly, “wanted to be on television,” since he made public entrance and exit into the White House and kept answering questions after insisting that he couldn’t discuss the intel reports.
And so, the top Democrat on the House Intel Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), spoke out about how Nunes must decide whether he’s chairing an independent oversight investigation or acting as a White House surrogate. At this point, Schiff feels “great doubt” about whether Nunes or the committee as a whole will be able to fairly conduct an investigation into Russia-Trump ties: “This is not how you conduct an investigation.” He also took time to point out that Trump’s “baseless claim” on wiretapping has been vindicated in no way by Nunes’ revelations.
The rehashing began in earnest among other lawmakers. Senator Lindsey Graham’s reaction highlighted the confusion felt by many who watched Nunes’ pressers. “I don’t know what he’s saying,” Graham admitted. “I would like to know more about what he’s saying, but incidental collection is not equivalent to government-directed surveillance of an American citizen.”
Elsewhere, Senator John McCain slammed both Nunes and Schiff for their “bizarre” media maneuvers, and of the ongoing Russia probe, he says, “No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone. And I don’t say that lightly.”
Once late night hit, Don Lemon led a panel (below) where members expressed disbelief at how Nunes left Democrats in the dark, which makes it awfully difficult to maintain an independent investigation. Lemon wasn’t subtle in his assessment: “It made him look like a shill for the White House.” He’s not wrong, and some wonder wheter Nunes’ was following a White House plan to take the Russia-Trump investigation out of the House Intel Committee’s hands … and place it with an independent prosecutor instead. Nunes has promised another statement by Friday, so stay tuned.