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One year ago, the same pattern: Nunes citing classified information to defend Trump

Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) pauses as during a news conference on Capitol Hill, on Oct. 24. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Around dusk on March 21, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — head of the House Intelligence Committee and its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — was riding in an Uber with a staff member. Suddenly, he looked at his phone and got out of the car without saying where he was going.

The next afternoon, he made a statement to reporters on Capitol Hill.

“I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition,” he said. He added, “I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.”  He meant that after people working on President Trump’s transition were included in surveillance of foreign actors (communication from them was “incidentally collected”), intelligence agencies removed the protection of anonymity that usually protects Americans when that happens.

Nunes’s allegation gave weight to an argument that Trump had been making for weeks, after the president spontaneously alleged on Twitter one Saturday morning that President Barack Obama had tapped the phones in Trump Tower. That claim wasn’t true, as intelligence officials later testified under oath. So the argument morphed into one about how the intelligence community had instead improperly focused on Trump staffers in their surveillance, an argument bolstered by Nunes’s sudden announcement.

Trump wasted no time celebrating Nunes’s allegations. Nunes spoke at about 1 p.m. on March 22; by 1:30 p.m., Trump was telling a reporter from Time to check out what Nunes had said — even before Nunes had arrived at the White House to brief the president on what he’d learned.

Two things later emerged about Nunes’s statement. The first was that there was a Trump transition team member whose communication was unmasked: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn. His conversations with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016 led to his lying to the FBI about what he’d said. Those lies led to his leaving the administration and, eventually, to pleading guilty to a charge from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team investigating Russian meddling.

The other thing that emerged was how Nunes had learned about this unmasking. When he got out of that Uber, he went to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building within the White House complex. Multiple White House officials orchestrated his visit, during which he was shown classified information about unmasked surveillance.

All of this is relevant again because a similar pattern seems to be playing out. Nunes has become a subject of national intrigue because his staff has compiled a memo that again has the happy effect of bolstering an argument being made by Trump. That memo, which is likely to be released soon, apparently argues that a surveillance warrant requested by the FBI to track former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was predicated on politically motivated information. The effect of the memo among those Trump defenders who’ve seen it is to argue that the Mueller investigation is a house of cards built on a shaky, politically motivated foundation. That’s an argument that CNN reports Trump himself has been making in some form.

“In phone calls last night and over the past days,” CNN’s reporters write, “Trump has told friends he believes the memo would expose bias within the agency’s top ranks and make it easier for him to argue the Russia investigations are prejudiced against him, according to two sources.”

It’s important to note a few qualifying characteristics of that warrant for Page. The first is that it was issued in October 2016, after he had already publicly distanced himself from the campaign. The second is that he had been on the radar of the FBI’s counterintelligence team years earlier, after he was mentioned as someone who should be targeted for information by Russian intelligence. Together, those things make it seem much less likely that the warrant was an attempt to undercut Trump himself.

Given Nunes’s history of defending the president, it’s not surprising that this memo originated in his office. Even before he went to the White House on March 21, there are hints that he had been coordinating his efforts with Trump’s team. Shortly before a March 20 Intelligence Committee hearing meeting — the same meeting where officials denied that Trump Tower had been wiretapped — an individual in the White House told reporter Ryan Lizza that Nunes would probably highlight the issue of incidental collection. “The White House clearly indicated to me that it knew Nunes would highlight this issue,” Lizza wrote for the New Yorker.

Sure enough, Nunes raised it in his second question. The next afternoon, he was summoned to the White House.

Shortly after Nunes talked to the press about what he’d seen, he faced questions from watchdog groups about the propriety of sharing what he did. Was revealing the collection of intelligence during the transition a violation of law?

The House Ethics Committee began an investigation, during which time Nunes said that he would recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related work on the Intelligence Committee. That didn’t prevent him from still being involved to some extent, though, including issuing subpoenas to intelligence agencies in June and a follow-up letter to the Department of Justice on Sept. 1.

In December, he was cleared by the Ethics Committee. As Natasha Bertrand reported this week, though, that determination by the Ethics Committee was reached despite the committee having been unable to review the classified information that Nunes was alleged to have revealed.

“The panel’s inability to determine for itself what may or may not have been classified — and what Nunes had actually been shown — likely contributed to its decision to close the investigation, according to one source,” Bertrand wrote.

In the weeks that followed, Nunes’s team drafted the memo that purports to show bias within the intelligence community. Again, this defense of the White House depends on classified information to which the public isn’t privy; again, the public is instead reliant on Nunes’s interpretation of it. In this case, though, there’s more direct pushback against Nunes’s claims. On Wednesday, the FBI offered an unusual public criticism of the memo’s accuracy.

When the House Intelligence Committee debated releasing it publicly earlier this week, Nunes faced pointed questions about its origin from Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

Quigley had earlier made his view of the memo clear: “All this smacks of is deflection, distraction, and quite honestly, acting like you are trying to help the White House address this investigation instead of trying to find out what happened,” he said.

Hence the questions he later asked.

“When you as the majority, conceived of doing this memo for release to the body and to the public, the preparation, the thought of doing it, the consultation of it, was any of this done after/during conversations or consultations with anyone in the White House? Did they have any idea you were doing this? Did they talk about doing this with you? Did they suggest it? Did you suggest it to them? Did you consult in deciding how to go forward with this before, during, and after this point right now?”

“I would just answer, as far as I know, no,” Nunes replied.

“Mr. Chairman,” Quigley continued, “does that mean that none of the staff members that worked for the majority had any consultation, communication at all with the White House?”

Nunes replied by noting that Quigley’s time for asking questions had expired.