The Nunes-White House question, assessed minute-by-minute
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza laid out a compelling case on Tuesday evening for why he thinks that the White House was likely aware of what Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) was up to last week.
Nunes, as you probably now know, is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and, in that role, in charge of one of the investigations into how Russia may have tried to influence the 2016 election and, further, if anyone associated with President Trump’s campaign was involved. Over the course of the past week, though, Nunes has imperiled that position. On March 22, he suddenly told the press that he’d seen intelligence suggesting that some Trump associates had been caught up in government surveillance — which, we were left to assume, might mean that Trump’s March 4 tweets about having been wiretapped by former president Barack Obama had some validity.
Since Nunes didn’t actually share that intelligence, since he later amended his description of what he’d seen and since the manner in which he alerted the public to what he’d discovered can at best be described as unorthodox, the story quickly became about Nunes instead of what he alleges he learned. As reporters dug into the story, we learned that Nunes actually reviewed those documents within the White House complex (though not at the White House itself).
Lizza’s piece fleshes out the timeline further, including a conversation Lizza had with an administration staffer at the beginning of last week suggesting that the White House and Nunes would offer the same argument in defense of Trump’s (false) assertion.
Here are the key points of what Nunes and the White House said and did.
Wednesday, March 15. While answering question from reporters about his committee’s investigation, Nunes — who served on the executive committee of Trump’s presidential transition team — tells NBC’s Kasie Hunt that “it’s very possible” that associates of Trump’s may have been swept up in what’s called “incidental collection.” That would mean that their communication was inadvertently observed as authorities were surveilling someone else. Imagine if you’re reading through someone’s email looking for information. Emails sent to or from other people from that account would be viewed by you incidentally.
This is apparently what happened to former national security adviser Michael Flynn. His communications with Russia’s ambassador were revealed because the ambassador was under surveillance, not, it seems, because Flynn was.
March 15, evening. In an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, Trump explains how he “learned” about the wiretapping after “reading about things” and having “been seeing a lot of things.”
He then makes a comment that’s more resonant after the Nunes mess.
Now, for the most part, I’m not going to discuss it, because we have it before the committee and we will be submitting things before the committee very soon that hasn’t been submitted as of yet. But it’s potentially a very serious situation.
He later adds:
But, we will be submitting certain things and I will be perhaps speaking about this next week, but it’s right now before the committee, and I think I want to leave it. I have a lot of confidence in the committee. … I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.
This sort of “you’ll see” argumentation from Trump is not uncommon. Consider his allegations that millions of people voted illegally, a claim that’s patently false. Trump’s method of rebutting the fact that he has no evidence for the claim is to suggest that more will come out eventually. But here Trump says specifically that “we will be submitting certain things,” which is a slightly different assertion.
Monday, March 20, morning. “[S]hortly before the start of the hearing,” Lizza writes, “a senior White House official told me, ‘You’ll see the setting of the predicate. That’s the thing to watch today.” The predicate, Lizza writes, was incidental collection. “The White House clearly indicated to me that it knew Nunes would highlight this issue,” Lizza writes, adding that he was told, “It’s backdoor surveillance where it’s not just incidental, it’s systematic. Watch Nunes today.”
March 20, 10 a.m. The hearing begins. There don’t appear to have been any documents submitted by the president.
Nunes’s second question addresses the issue of incidental collection of intelligence.
Were the communications of officials or associates of any campaign subject to any kind of improper surveillance? The Intelligence Community has extremely strict procedures for handling information pertaining to any U.S. citizens who are subject even to incidental surveillance, and this Committee wants to ensure all surveillance activities have followed all relevant laws, rules, and regulations. Let me be clear: we know there was not a wiretap on Trump Tower. However, it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.
Nunes also encouraged “anyone who has information about these topics to come forward and speak to the Committee.”
Tuesday, March 21, afternoon or evening. According to the Daily Beast, Nunes and a staffer are traveling in an Uber when Nunes gets a “communication on his phone” — an email or text message, presumably — and the congressman suddenly exits the car. The precise timing on this isn’t clear; in later interviews, Nunes says that it was still daylight. It’s also not clear where exactly he got out of the car.
To gain access to the building, Nunes would need to have been cleared by a White House staffer. It’s not clear who that was; on Wednesday, press secretary Sean Spicer said he is looking into who it may have been — something that those familiar with the process suggest should only take a few moments of effort. It’s also not clear with whom Nunes met,although he described his source for the information to Bloomberg‘s Eli Lake as an “intelligence official” and not a White House staffer.
Nunes was there, he says, to view sensitive information in a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF — a room that offers special protections against electronic or other forms of surveillance. In total, he said he saw “dozens” of reports.
He was doing so within the White House grounds, he said, because the information he was viewing was coming from the executive branch; namely, it seems, an intelligence agency. While there is an SCIF available to the House Intelligence Committee, it’s part of the legislative branch and, Nunes says, therefore wasn’t a place where the documents could be reviewed. “[T]he source could not simply put the documents in a backpack and walk them over to the House Intelligence Committee space,” a spokesman for Nunes told the Huffington Post.
Wednesday, March 22, around 1 p.m. Nunes first offered a brief statement to reporters on Capitol Hill before heading to the White House and briefing Trump on what he’d learned.
I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition. Details about persons associated with the incoming administration — details with little apparent foreign intelligence value — were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting. I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. To be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia, or the investigation of Russian activities, or of the Trump team.
March 22, just after 1:30 p.m. During an interview with Time’s Michael Scherer, Trump mentions the apparent information from Nunes, who had not yet arrived to brief him. (The time here is via Scherer.)
“I’ll give you the front page story, and just today I heard, just a little while ago, that Devin Nunes had a news conference, did you hear about this, where they have a lot of information on tapping,” Trump said. “Did you hear about that?”
Scherer had not. “What I’m talking about is surveillance,” Trump said, after saying that he hadn’t meant literal wiretapping. “And today, Devin Nunes just had a news conference. Now probably got obliterated by what’s happened in London.” (A terrorist attacked people near Parliament.) “But just had a news conference, and here it is one of those things.”
He later added, “Devin Nunes had a news conference. I mean I don’t know, I was unable to see it, because I am at meetings, but they just had a news conference talking about surveillance.”
March 22, 1:45 p.m. During his press briefing, Spicer mentions the Nunes comments and quotes from his statement, which he says he saw as he was walking out to begin the briefing. He said, too, that Trump was at that time wrapping up a phone call with the Prime Minister Theresa May.
“The media has more information than we do at this point,” Spicer said. He later added: “There’s a lot of questions that I think his statement raises, and I hope that we can continue to get to the bottom of. But right now, we just don’t — we’re not there yet. I think that there are a series of questions that need to get answered as to what happened, why it happened, and hopefully we will be able to share more with you going forward.”
March 22, 3:00 p.m. After meeting with Trump, Nunes answered questions from the White House driveway.
Asked why he told the possible target of his investigation about information potentially related to that investigation, Nunes reiterated that what he’d seen was unrelated to Russia. “The president needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there, and I have a duty to tell him that,” Nunes said. He indicated that the information he’d seen may have come from confidential Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants, which, if true, may open him up to an ethics probe.
Later, Nunes’s Democratic colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee expressed their anger at Trump being informed before they were. For his part, Trump told reporters that he felt “somewhat” vindicated by what Nunes had told him.
Thursday, March 23. Answering a question during his daily briefing, Spicer says that it “doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense” that Nunes would have gotten information from the administration on Tuesday and come back on Wednesday to share it with the president. “I don’t know why he would come up to brief the president on something that we gave him,” Spicer said.
Monday, March 27. Spicer changes his tune.
“Can you say factually, absolutely flatly, that it is not possible that Chairman Nunes came to brief the president on something that he obtained from the White House or the administration?” a reporter asks.
“I can’t say 100 percent that I know anything what he briefed him on,” Spicer replied. “What I can tell you through his public comments is that he has said that he had multiple sources that he came to a conclusion on. So to the degree to which any of those sources weighed on the ultimate outcome of what he came to a decision on, I don’t know. And that’s something that, frankly, I don’t even know that he discussed with the president.”
“So it’s possible?” the reporter asked. “As far as you know right now, it’s possible?”
“Anything is possible,” Spicer said.
Tuesday, March 28. After nearly a week during which most of the timeline above is revealed — and after scheduled Intelligence Committee hearings are canceled — Nunes says that he would “never” tell his colleagues on the committee who his source was.