The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Things just went from bad to worse for Devin Nunes and the White House

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) wades through the media after a Republican conference meeting Tuesday. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Update: Nunes has now done some explaining -- emphasis on "some." He spoke again Thursday with Bloomberg's Lake, who has concluded that Nunes "misled" him about the chairman's sources not being White House staff. Nunes conceded: "I did use the White House to help to confirm what I already knew from other sources."

The original post follows.

Devin Nunes has some explaining to do.

The New York Times just reported that two White House officials helped provide Nunes with information that President Trump and his associates had been swept up in legal surveillance, just before Nunes briefed Trump himself and then disclosed some of the information to the media and to the House Intelligence Committee that he chairs.

The Times’ sources identified the officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, national security lawyer in the Office of White House Counsel:

The officials said that earlier this month, shortly after Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter about being wiretapped on the orders of President Barack Obama, Mr. Cohen-Watnick began reviewing highly classified reports detailing the intercepted communications of foreign officials.
Officials said the reports consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about how they were trying to develop contacts within Mr. Trump’s family and inner circle in advance of his inauguration.

But there’s a problem: This conflicts with what Nunes has said about his source or sources. He has declined to name them, but he and a spokesman have said and/or strongly suggested it wasn't White House staff.

Nunes reportedly told Bloomberg's Eli Lake in an interview Monday “that his source was not a White House staffer and was an intelligence official," Lake wrote.

A Nunes spokesman, Jack Langer, also told the Los Angeles Times that it wasn’t a White House staffer, the Times reported.

And Nunes again appeared to deny meeting with any White House aides in a Monday afternoon interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer:

BLITZER: In addition going to that secure room to look over these documents, do you have other meetings at the White House? Did you meet with the president or any of his aides while you were there that night?
NUNES: No. And in fact, I'm quite sure that people in the West Wing had no idea I was there.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer reacts to a report of intelligence leak to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). (Video: Reuters)

It wasn't just Nunes. White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who hasn’t detailed Nunes’s visit to the White House last week, cited Nunes's comments to Bloomberg on Monday. “He has said, from my understanding on the record, that he did not meet with White House staff,” Spicer said.

And Spicer last week suggested strongly that he doubted it was the White House that provided the information. “I don’t know why he would brief the speaker, then come down here to brief us on something that we would’ve briefed him on,” Spicer said. “It doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense. So, I’m not aware of it. But it doesn’t really pass the smell test.”

Nunes hasn’t said much about his sourcing, but he has certainly suggested the only reason that he was on the White House grounds is because the information happened to be there and that it wasn’t something that was fed to him by parties interested in confirming Trump’s evidence-free claim that he was under surveillance during the 2016 election. The Times’ report seriously calls that into question.

We can perhaps expect Nunes to quibble with the definition of a "White House staffer" or what constitutes "any of [Trump's] aides." Maybe he'll argue that the National Security Council is a separate entity. But Ellis works in the White House counsel's office, so he's clearly a White House staffer and an aide to the president. His official title is "special assistant to the president."

And if he and/or Cohen-Watnick played any role in providing information to Nunes, the denials above would be highly misleading, at best.

Spicer declined to comment on the Times report Thursday afternoon, saying he didn’t want to lend credence to any of its details.

Langer took the same line in response to my questions to him: “As he’s stated many times, Chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source’s identity, and he will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources.”

The Times’ report will make that line much more difficult to hold.