The latest twist in whether or not President Donald Trump was “wiretapped” by the Obama administration provided little clarification of that issue on Wednesday. But it brought to the fore the question of whether Congress can carry out an objective investigation of Russian election meddling.
Two days after the directors of the FBI and the National Security Agency publicly repudiated Trump’s tweeted allegations that he was wiretapped by the Obama administration, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of California revived them with a confusing revelation that Trump and his advisers appear in intelligence reports derived from legal surveillance authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“To be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or any investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team,” Nunes told reporters before sharing his information with Trump at the White House.
Democrats immediately cried foul and questioned whether Nunes’ actions disqualified him from leading the House investigation. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, told reporters that Nunes had reported the information to the White House before he’d shared it with other members of the committee.
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Schiff questioned the wisdom of sharing that information with a White House under investigation by the FBI for potential collusion with Russia during the election.
He also disagreed with Nunes’ assessment that the individuals in the intelligence report had been “unmasked,” a reference to U.S. requirements that the identity of Americans whose communications are detected “incidentally” in counterintelligence investigations should be protected.
Schiff said that the names of individuals had remained “masked” in the reports.
Nunes’ actions cast “a profound cloud over our ability to do our work,” Schiff said, noting that he now had “grave concerns” that the House Intelligence Committee can conduct the investigation in a bipartisan manner.
“This is not how you conduct an investigation,” he said.
Nunes’ revelations were welcomed at the White House, however, where Trump said he felt “somewhat” vindicated after weeks in which his accusations against Obama had been repeatedly knocked down by congressional investigators as well as FBI director James Comey and Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the NSA.
The actual import of Nunes’ revelation was cloudy. Nunes acknowledged that the intercepts on which the intelligence reports he’d seen were based were legal and had been ordered by the secret court that has jurisdiction over intelligence matters. He also expressed no concern that Trump administration figures had been detected communicating with the targets of a counterintelligence investigation.
What worried him, he said, was the apparent failure of members of the intelligence community to keep the identities hidden in their reports on what was being overheard.
That echoed a theme Republicans sounded repeatedly at Monday’s intelligence committee hearing, that the issue was not Russian ties to the Trump election campaign, but how those ties were leaked to reporters. Several Republicans including Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., questioned the legality of identifying people who’ve been recorded in what is called “incidental collection” during surveillance.
“I recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition,” Nunes said in a statement. “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.”
When questioned, however, Nunes acknowledged that the names of Americans in the reports were hidden by phrases such as “American Number One.”
He also did not reveal the names of the Trump team whose names were found in the reports, except the president, or the identities of the foreign figures whose communications the FISC had ordered monitored.
Nunes also did not say who provided the reports. He said he was directed to them after the Monday hearing when “I encouraged anyone who has information about relevant topics—including surveillance on President-elect Trump or his transition team – to come forward and speak to the House Intelligence Committee.”
But some Democratic members of the committee suggested Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, may have coordinated his comments with the White House.
“Chair Nunes needs to make it clear Intel Comm invest isn’t controlled by White House!” Rep. Jackie Speier of California said in a tweet.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Trump critic, made a similar observation on MSNBC’s “For the Record with Greta.” Calling the events of Wednesday “bizarre,” McCain said “no longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don’t say that lightly.”