House Intelligence Committee Democrats said Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) apologized to them Thursday during a closed-door meeting for his handling of revelations about surveillance that potentially could have been collected about President Trump and his associates during the transition period.
Nunes’s apology was “generic,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on CNN, adding that it was “not clear” precisely which actions his apology covered.
Nunes came under heavy fire from Democrats on Wednesday after going first to the press, then to the White House, and then to the press again before consulting with committee colleagues about what he said was fresh intelligence about the president and his campaign aides.
On Thursday, Nunes said it was a “judgment call” to personally brief Trump before speaking with his Intelligence Committee colleagues, who are actively investigating allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections and suspected links between Trump aides and the Kremlin.
When he made his apology, Nunes stressed “that he really wanted us to be bipartisan,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “He was contrite. Internally on the committee, he’s a very reasonable guy. But outside, on a number of occasions, he’s acted in the interests of the Trump campaign.”
Himes said Nunes’s actions “dramatically increased the pressure for an outside bipartisan commission.” But until that happens, he said, the Intelligence panel needs to stick with its probe. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “If we walk away, the Senate might be the only group working” on an investigation in Congress.
The California Republican has said he is expecting the NSA, CIA and FBI to respond to a request for a full list of names of people whose identities were disclosed after the individuals were picked up in “incidental collection,” or legal collection by U.S. intelligence agencies of communications of individuals speaking with targets of surveillance. Nunes said Wednesday that the information he has seen may show that Trump or his aides were picked up in such incidental collection during the transition.
Some Democrats have accused Nunes of speaking publicly in an attempt to deflect attention from Monday’s congressional hearing, at which FBI Director James B. Comey not only confirmed that the FBI is looking into allegations that the Trump team coordinated with Russian officials during the election, but flatly denied Trump’s accusation that the Obama administration had wiretapped him.
Said one Democratic committee official: “This looks like the president got in hot water over his wiretapping claim, and the White House had to find a way to give him an off-ramp.”
Nunes would not say whether his source was affiliated with the White House or what type of incidental collection had occurred — whether it was direct conversations between Trump or his team and a foreign agent, or whether two foreign entities were simply picked up discussing the president. He said only that the communications did not involve Russia.
The intelligence community regularly monitors, under court approval, the communications of foreign individuals acting as agents of a foreign government, as well as some people suspected of terrorism. The communications of Americans who are in touch with foreign agents can thus be “incidentally collected” — as occurred when former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn was picked up talking to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who was under surveillance.
The problem potentially arises when the identities of those Americans are “unmasked” — that is, revealed to others in the government. There are legal procedures allowing for such unmasking when it is deemed necessary for understanding the context of the intelligence in communications.
Nunes said Wednesday he was concerned about the unmasking in the information he viewed. But after speaking with Nunes, Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) said that only one name in the report that Nunes viewed was “unmasked” — and that name had nothing to do with the Trump team.
Nunes told reporters that the identities of the individuals in the report were “very clear to me,” and that they were members of the Trump team.
That has sparked charges that if anybody is revealing more than they should, it is Nunes — for potentially telling the public that hidden names in surveillance reports referred to the president and his advisers, something that is likely classified information.
Nunes said the information was classified, but he argued that disclosing the existence of the report and the nature of it did not reveal any classified information.
Nunes’s own staff were not aware of the chairman’s decision to go public and brief the president and were dismayed by his actions, said several individuals familiar with the matter.
“He betrayed the independence that our committee must show to get to the bottom of what happened with Russia’s interference in our elections,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). “He should have come to the committee first. He never under any circumstances should have gone to the president, whose campaign is under federal criminal and counterintelligence investigations.”
Swalwell said Nunes’s actions prove the need for an independent commission to investigate the Russia-related allegations because “the people we have been counting on to be impartial in getting to the bottom of what happened have shown that they cannot be.”
Swalwell has co-authored legislation to establish such a commission with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.).
But Democrats are not the only ones calling for the investigation to be taken away from Congress following Nunes’s actions Wednesday.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on MSNBC Wednesday that despite his continued faith in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, the House Intelligence Committee’s process has become so politicized that “no longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone.”
He called for either a select committee or an independent commission to look into the matter.