WASHINGTON — The bipartisan comity that has traditionally been a hallmark of congressional intelligence committees eroded in the House today after Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told media and President Trump that he or his advisors may have been incidentally collected in FISA surveillance activities, an “alarming” turn of events that Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said undermined the credibility of the committee’s investigation into Russia campaign interference and Trump’s claims of being wiretapped at the direction of President Obama.
It started with an early afternoon press conference called by Nunes — appearing alone, while other press conferences as recently as last week featured Nunes and Schiff side by side.
Nunes told reporters that he “recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.” He added that the surveillance was not related to Russia, but another unspecified entity or entities.
Incidental collection occurs when a U.S. person enters the communications of a foreign subject being legally monitored under a FISA court order.
Nunes said he’d asked the directors of the FBI, NSA, and CIA “to expeditiously comply” with a request for “a full account of these surveillance activities.”
“I informed Speaker Ryan this morning of this new information, and I will be going to the White House this afternoon to share what I know with the president,” he said.
Nunes then headed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and was ready to speak to the press once again after meeting with Trump. On CNN after his appearance at the White House, the chairman said “it does appear” that Trump himself could have incidentally been picked up during FISA surveillance.
“So, until we actually get those reports and get an explanation from the appropriate agencies, we won’t know the answer to that. But, clearly, there is a lot of information in the reports that I have 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,” said Nunes, who served as an advisor on Trump’s transition team. “And, you know, some of this is, I think, legitimate collection, but some of it, I think it bothered me enough that I went over to the White House, because I think the president needs to see these reports for himself.”
Nunes reiterated he was “quite confident that President Obama did not order a wiretap on Trump Tower.”
Trump, he added, “needs to see what’s out there on him, and it’s up to him to decide whether or not it was proper collection or not or if it met a threshold… these are intelligence reports that were widely disseminated. It’s not fair for him not to know what’s in these reports, while the past administration and many agencies do know.”
“And, so, look, I think you know I’m a fair guy. And I will continue to conduct this investigation as I see fit. And I will try to make it as fair as possible,” Nunes said. “But I can’t make everybody happy, but we will continue to try to make people happy.”
He didn’t make Schiff happy, as Nunes’ Dem counterpart said the GOP chairman didn’t share his information with the committee before taking it to the press and White House — “a profound irregularity, given that the matter is currently under investigation.”
Schiff added that in an afternoon conversation with Nunes, the chairman told him that “most of the names in the intercepted communications were in fact masked, but that he could still figure out the probable identity of the parties.”
“Again, this does not indicate that there was any flaw in the procedures followed by the intelligence agencies,” he said. “Moreover, the unmasking of a U.S. person’s name is fully appropriate when it is necessary to understand the context of collected foreign intelligence information.”
Schiff held his own early evening press conference on the Hill and made his own media rounds.
“It’s simply not possible to do a credible investigation if you take information that’s pertinent to the scope of what you’re investigating, and bring it to the White House instead of bring it to your own committee,” he told MSNBC. “So, today’s actions, I think, have really been a body blow to the credibility of the committee and we’re going to have to have a real heart to heart about this tomorrow.”
Schiff said it’s “very difficult to discern what’s the relevance here” and “we will be requesting in the committee access to whatever evidence the chairman has received.”
“Let’s say two Chinese business people talking to each other about how they wanted to do business with Donald Trump. And his name is mentioned. That would be incidental collection even though it doesn’t involve any communication directly from a Chinese official to anyone in the Trump organization,” he gave as an example of what the material could reflect. “The fact his name is mentioned is considered incidental collection. His name would then be masked. His name could be unmasked if it was important to understand the significance of the intelligence.”
At a White House meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Trump asked if after Nunes’ visit he felt vindicated in tweeting that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
“I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do, I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found,” Trump replied. “I somewhat do.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the revelations could potentially be “disturbing,” because “I meet with foreign leaders all the time as a senator, I wonder if my meetings are being surveilled by our intelligence community — if so, I think when I’m involved, that would be inappropriate because I may be talking of things of policy that I don’t want the executive branch to know about.”
“But, I guess, here is the question for me: does this fall into the category of the Trump campaign was surveilled? I don’t think so. Does it fall into the category of being unlawful? I don’t believe so,” Graham told CNN.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told MSNBC that there was “no substantiation” for Nunes or Schiff’s statements.
“After the heads of our intelligence agencies testified before Congress saying there was no evidence of any wiretapping of Trump Towers,” he said. “So here we are mixed up not only in contradictory statements, but also in what the word ‘is’ is.”
McCain said the day’s events underscored the need for a select committee to investigate Russia’s influence operation during election season as “the American people have found out so far that no longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said “presidential whisperer” Nunes needs to make “a profound apology for what he did.”
“There was absolutely no urgency to him racing over to the White House. I think this was pure theater,” she charged. “I think in many respects it was probably orchestrated by the White House.”