An explosive New York Times story on Thursday afternoon reports that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes received classified information from two people who work in the Trump White House as part of what appears to be an effort to shore up the president’s insistence that he was “wiretapped” by the Obama administration.
If true, The Times report would prove that Nunes lied to the media about the source of the information that he discussed in a press conference last week, and that he may also have misled the public about the contents of the documents he claimed to have reviewed.
The story will, at minimum, increase calls for Nunes to recuse himself from the Intelligence Committee’s stalled inquiry into Russian meddling in the presidential election last year and into possible contacts between members of the Trump administration and Russian intelligence officials. Others have said that recusal would not go far enough and that Nunes should be removed as chair of the committee.
The story began in a Capitol Hill hallway last week, where Nunes held a short-notice press conference and revealed that he had been given access to classified intelligence reports that, he said, “clearly show the president-elect and his team were at least monitored” by US intelligence officials. However, after initially saying that Trump’s own communications had been picked up, he later waffled about exactly what the reports said while leaving the distinct impression that actual conversations involving Trump transition team members had been caught up incidentally in the course of regular intelligence operations.
However, according to The Times report, officials with knowledge of the documents report that much of what Nunes saw was actually reports about third parties in foreign countries -- ambassadors and other officials -- talking about Trump and how to gain access to or influence with his inner circle.
After it had become clear that Nunes had personally briefed President Trump on the documents and called the press conference all before sharing information with the Democratic members of the Intelligence Committee, he began to face calls to recuse himself from the investigation. Democrats, in particular, said that given his behavior it was impossible to avoid the perception that Nunes was working hand-in-glove with a White House that he was supposed to be investigating. Suspicions became stronger when Nunes revealed that he had been on the grounds of the White House complex when he viewed the materials.
When questions were raised about where he received the information, Nunes told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that his source had not been a member of the White House staff.
However, that appears to be false, The Times reported on Thursday. The newspaper identified Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director of intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, an attorney in the White House Counsel’s Office as the people who gave Nunes access to the information.
If Cohen-Watnick is, indeed, one of those responsible for giving Nunes the information, it would further complicate the situation. He was brought to the NSC by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who was fired for failing to reveal his contacts with Russian officials. Earlier this month it was revealed that Flynn’s replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster had wanted to fire Cohen-Watnick but was overruled by Trump at the urging of close advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, the latter being also Trump’s son-in-law.
In a press briefing on Thursday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer flatly declined to address the report, vaguely challenging its accuracy but refusing to address any of the specifics. The White House, he said repeatedly, had decided to speak only about the “substance” of the materials given to Nunes, not the “process” by which they had been made available.
Spicer, however, didn’t really address much of the substance either. After announcing that the heads of the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate had been invited to the White House to review some of the materials relevant to the investigation, he declined to say what they were or whether they were meant to bolster Trump’s claim about wiretapping.