It's no surprise that President Trump has seized upon the Nunes memo to argue the Russia investigation is a witch hunt. But did the White House assist on the document that Trump believes grants him such absolution? On that question, both sides are being cagey. And the answer could be important to the Russia investigation.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) was asked Tuesday morning whether the White House played any role in crafting the memo, and he blew off the question.
"Democracy dies in darkness, my friend," he said, referring to The Washington Post's motto. "Get to work."
Nunes declines to comment after GOP Conference meeting. I asked him if the WH had any role in his memo. His response: “Democracy dies in darkness, my friend. Get to work.”— Manu Raju (@mkraju) February 6, 2018
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It's not the first time Nunes has offered something less than a total denial of any coordination with the White House. A transcript of the committee hearing in which members voted to release the memo last week showed Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley (Ill.) asking him that question:
QUIGLEY: 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 [or] 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 before, during and after this point right now?NUNES: I would just answer as far as I know, no.
When Quigley pressed Nunes on whether any of Nunes's staff had "any consultation, communication at all with the White House," Nunes blew off the question -- as he did Tuesday -- and moved on to another member of the committee.
The White House has offered a similar "as far as I know" denial, with spokesman Raj Shah telling CNN on Monday: "All I can say is that the first time anybody at the White House saw the memo was on Monday when it was delivered to the White House. Obviously, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee will have discussions with folks in the White House on all sorts of matters, but nothing with respect to coordination of the memo that I'm aware of."
Nunes's and Shah's comments both have the distinction of covering plenty of ground without offering a 100 percent denial. Quigley laid out all manner of possible contacts between the White House and Nunes's committee, and Nunes said he wasn't aware of anything Quigley suggested. Shah said flatly that the White House hadn't seen the memo till last Monday -- which isn't the same as saying it hadn't coordinated -- but he was apparently less certain "with respect to coordination" (thus the "that I'm aware of").
This may seem to be pedantic, but there is a history that colors all of this. Back during the episode in which Trump claimed that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, Nunes set about substantiating that claim. It was only revealed later that he had obtained the information during a secret visit to the White House to view intelligence files and brief Trump before briefing his own committee:
Nunes’s meeting with a source and his review of intelligence material apparently occurred in a secure space for handling classified files within the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. Nunes returned to the White House the next day — bypassing colleagues on the House committee — supposedly to brief Trump on what he had learned.The attempts to keep such matters hidden from public view, however, added to the perception that the Trump administration has failed to be forthcoming about contacts with Russia and is working with allies on Capitol Hill to blunt congressional probes.
The whole thing reeked of the White House feeding biased information to a powerful and sympathetic member of Congress -- Nunes was on Trump's transition team -- with Nunes obliging on its desire to pass off the information as independent. There were soon calls for Nunes to step down, and he ultimately temporarily recused himself on Russia-related matters.
Both events featured Nunes sharing controversial information that some argued vindicated Trump. But in both cases, even many Republicans weren't willing to go that far. In the case of the new memo, Republicans including Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) have cautioned that the memo has no impact on the Russia investigation, and there are plenty of holes in the memo. In the case of the alleged wiretapping evidence, Nunes had found what's known as "incidental" surveillance of Trump associates -- i.e. not a direct wiretapping of Trump Tower, as Trump had claimed, but rather surveillance of foreign nationals that happened to be communicating with Trump associates.
In both cases, the evidence put forward is about what we'd expect the White House to argue, but instead it has come from a supposedly independent committee chairman.
The ranking Democrat on Nunes's committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), said Sunday that it was "very possible" there was some coordination with the White House on the memo. He added that such coordination "could be evidence of the president’s intent to interfere with the [Russia] investigation."
Schiff, to be clear, seems to be speculating. (And if he's not, then he should probably tell us what he knows.) But he makes a good point about any possible coordination mattering to the Russia probe -- especially given how Trump has portrayed the memo as his own "vindication" in that probe.
It's entirely possible that both Nunes and the White House are just being careful with their denials, knowing there could be a conversation somewhere along the line of which they may not be aware. But at this point, given what happened between Nunes and the White House last time around and their incomplete denials this time around, it's worth asking the question.