WASHINGTON ― Of the many questions surrounding House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), and his conduct in investigating President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, the most puzzling has to be his explanation for his recent visit to the White House grounds. People who have worked in the White House suggest that, on this matter, Nunes and the White House simply aren’t being credible.
For those just catching up: Last week, Nunes caused a stir when, with no prior notice to his fellow committee members, he announced that he’d received information showing that Trump transition officials had been caught inadvertently in surveillance operations targeting suspected foreign spies, and that their names appeared in internal intelligence reports. No one seemed to know where Nunes had gotten this information, and the congressman, who went to the White House to brief the president on his findings, would only say that he had an anonymous source. He has refused to name his source even to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee.
Over the weekend, it was reported that Nunes ditched his own staff the night before making his announcement. On Monday, the news broke that he had gone to the White House grounds to use a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility ― basically, a room or area that meets certain rigorous security standards ― to get the information that formed the basis of his accusations.
This raised the distinct possibility that the White House itself had been the source of the information, and that it had given that information to Nunes so he could provide Trump with some cover for his baseless accusation that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. (The FBI and Nunes himself have said there is no evidence to support Trump’s claims.)
The White House and Nunes both deny that there was any collusion, and the White House has argued that it is possible Nunes came to the grounds without anyone from the administration knowing about it.
“I don’t know that members of Congress need to be cleared,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said this week.
But it’s basically impossible to believe that someone from the White House did not at least know that Nunes was coming to use the SCIF to access the information that would form the basis of his now-controversial press conference.
The timing of last week’s events offered the first indication of possible coordination between Nunes and the Trump administration. Earlier this month, Trump told Fox News that evidence to back up his wiretapping claims would soon emerge.
The following Monday, FBI Director James Comey delivered two blows to the Trump team: He publicly testified that there was no evidence Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, and he confirmed that the agency was investigating ties between Trump associates and Russian government officials.
Two days later, Nunes held an impromptu press conference, where he alleged that Trump and his team were surveilled during the Obama administration. Hours later, Spicer directly quoted Nunes during the daily White House press briefing. Later that day, Nunes went to the White House to brief Trump on his findings. Trump emerged from the meeting feeling “somewhat” vindicated, he told reporters.
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has since stated that a “top” White House official told him to keep an eye on the “predicate that is set” by Nunes.
Nunes’ office has confirmed that the congressman’s allegations are based on reports that came from the White House. The documents were “executive branch documents that have not been provided to Congress,” Jack Langer, a spokesman for Nunes, told The Huffington Post.
Moreover, it would be logistically impossible, sources say, for Nunes to get onto the White House grounds ― much less get into a room used for viewing classified information ― without being escorted by someone with an official badge.
“You have to be allowed onto the White House compound by a White House staffer. You have to be allowed into a SCIF by a White House staffer. You have to be provided computer credentials by a White House staffer. There is no other way to be authorized access to the White House other than via a White House staffer,” said Ned Price, who ran communications for Obama’s National Security Council. “Did he just show up and say ‘Let me in’? It defies credulity.”
When asked how exactly Nunes got into the White House last week, Spicer told reporters on Wednesday that it was “a question for him, not for us.”
Nunes, who has otherwise been tight-lipped about his source, told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake on Monday that his source was an intelligence official, not a White House staffer. Even if that is true, it would have had to have been an intelligence official with cleared White House access (potentially an official on temporary detail with the National Security Council), or Nunes and his source would have had to have been let in by someone else from the White House.
Perhaps Nunes’ most bizarre move thus far has been his refusal to disclose his source’s identity to Schiff, his Democratic counterpart, who is regularly briefed on information in his role as the ranking member of the intelligence committee.
Even some of Nunes’ Republican colleagues are puzzled by his handling of the situation.
“The chairman and ranking member not talking with each other ― that’s bizarre on such an important issue,” one GOP lawmaker said Wednesday. “I just can’t imagine myself and my counterpart, on something this important to the country, having zero communication.”
Nunes’ behavior, the Republican lawmaker continued, is making it appear as though he is “somebody who’s in essence working for the administration.”
Nunes has said that he will remain atop the investigation his committee is leading, and that he will never reveal the source of his surveillance accusation. But the trip he took to the White House has prompted bipartisan calls for him to step aside, or for the work to be placed under the auspices of a select committee.
Under the Obama administration, at least some information about Nunes’ mysterious White House visit would have eventually been made public in White House visitor logs. Those logs used to be accessible online and were usually updated every three to four months. But the website hosting the visitor logs has been down since Trump took office.
When asked whether the White House plans to resume the practice, Spicer would only say that “we’re reviewing that now.”
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.