House intelligence committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., apologized to members of the panel today for his public claims about intelligence community surveillance of President Trump’s transition team amid charges from Democrats that his unilateral announcement on the White House lawn had “betrayed” the panel’s bipartisan investigation of Russian cyberattacks on the 2016 election.
“At this point, the committee’s independence is on life support,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., told Yahoo News after a closed-door meeting of the committee Thursday.
“Not since Sept. 11 has this committee been charged with such an important responsibility,” Swalwell added, referring to the panel’s Russia probe. “And that requires independence and collaboration [with Democrats.] He has betrayed both of those.”
Swalwell’s comments followed an apparently tense meeting of the committee during which Democrats pressed Nunes on the source of his information that communications involving transition team members had been intercepted — a revelation that President Trump immediately claimed justified his March 4 tweets accusing President Obama of “wiretapping” his office at Trump Tower.
The Democrats also demanded to know why Nunes had not shared his new information with them before rushing to the White House to brief Trump and then talking to reporters on the White House lawn.
Nunes issued what sources described as a partial apology Thursday morning, acknowledging that he should have informed Democrats on the panel about his new information and promising to share it with them by Friday. He did not back off his claims, however, that intelligence community surveillance of foreign targets had “incidentally” picked up conversations that the targets had with members of Trump’s transition team.
“He just apologized; he didn’t specify what his apology was about,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told reporters after the meeting, according to an NBC News account.
Intelligence community officials have long acknowledged that such “incidental” collection is not unusual. The identities of American citizens whose conversations are collected in that way are supposed to be “masked” or concealed when intelligence reports are circulated within the government. It is not clear whether Nunes had evidence that this was not done with Trump transition representatives; he seemed to be suggesting that the identity of members of the transition team could be inferred from the context.
NBC News national correspondent Peter Alexander reported that Nunes acknowledged that he might have mishandled the situation. “The president didn’t invite me over. I called down there and invited myself because I thought he needed to understand what I saw and that he needed to try to get information, because he has every right to see it,” Nunes said. “It’s a judgment call on my part. At the end of the day, sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you don’t.”
Nunes declined to say where he saw the intelligence reports about the Trump transition surveillance, fueling suspicions among Democrats that he was, as one said, “put up” to make the claim by the White House in an effort to justify Trump’s tweets.
The incident raised questions about whether Nunes, who was a member of Trump’s transition team, has retained sufficient credibility to continue to run an investigation that, among other things, is looking into whether members of Trump’s campaign collaborated with Kremlin figures in the release of internal Democratic Party emails and documents stolen by Russian state-sponsored hackers.
“I think he sent a signal that as a member of the Trump transition team himself, he probably should not be intricately involved in this investigation,” said House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
In one of the ironies of the incident, a Trump administration ally circulated a claim Thursday by ex-NSA contractor and fugitive Edward Snowden, who said in a tweet from Moscow that Nunes had a point.
“Right or wrong, if a spy agency — via any method — intercepts, copies, or otherwise reviews your communications, they have spied on you,” tweeted Snowden, whom Trump has previously called a “terrible traitor.”
Among those retweeting Snowden’s comment: Michael Cohen, who describes himself on Twitter as “personal attorney to President Donald J. Trump.”
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