House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) got his intelligence information—divulged earlier this month at a bizarre briefing that set off a brand-new Capitol Hill firestorm—from two White House officials, the New York Times revealed Thursday.
Also Thursday, "the White House said...it was inviting the top-ranking lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees to view materials it said had been uncovered in the course of looking into President Donald Trump's claims he'd been surveilled by the Obama administration," CNN reported.
Ranking committee member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the news raised "profound questions about just what the White House is doing."
Schiff: WH's handling of intelligence regarding the incidental collection of information raises "profound questions" https://t.co/XzsQTx7hxq
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) March 30, 2017
According to the Times, "Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council (NSC), and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel's Office and formerly worked on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee," helped Nunes acquire reports "that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies."
Nunes, who acknowledged this week that he'd secretly visited the White House grounds to view the documents, has refused to reveal where he got the information. He continued to do so through a spokesman on Thursday.
The Times cited "several current American officials" as its own sources.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, meanwhile, dodged questions about the Times' report during Thursday's briefing.
The Hill reports:
Spicer during Thursday's briefing did not comment on specific allegations in the story, noting that the White House has invited the House and Senate Intelligence Committee heads to view the documents in question.
"I've read the report, and respectfully, your question assumes the reporting is correct," he said.
"We are not going to start commenting on one-off anonymous sources that publications publish."
Spicer said the White House "has invited the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees to review new material potentially relevant to their investigations," according to CNBC, which added: "He did not go into detail about what that information is."
CNN adds that Schiff
confirmed during a news conference later Thursday that he was invited to the White House to view intelligence documents, but in a public reply to the White House he expressed "profound concern" with the way the materials were being made available to the committee.
He said he wants to know why the materials appeared to be directed through Nunes if they originated at the White House. Schiff also said he's asked the White House if the materials he's been invited to view are the same as the intelligence viewed by Nunes last week.
If so, Schiff said, he wants to know: "Why weren't they presented in a more transparent way to the committee?"
Schiff asked as much in a letter sent Thursday afternoon to the White House.
Axios offers more information on Cohen-Watnick and Ellis:
- Cohen-Watnick is the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council. He was brought into the White House by now-fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Politico reported earlier this month that Flynn's replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, attempted to move Cohen-Watnick to another position after the CIA "saw him as a threat," but was overruled by Trump himself after Cohen-Watnick appealed to Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.
- Ellis is a lawyer in the White House Counsel's Office—his current titles include: special assistant to the President, senior associate counsel to the President, and deputy National Security Council legal advisor. He has a Nunes connection through his former position as general counsel to the House Intelligence Committee. The press release announcing his appointment to the White House stated that he is currently an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve.
Of Thursday's revelations, the Washington Post's Aaron Blake wrote: "Things just went from bad to worse for Devin Nunes and the White House." The Times reporting, argued Blake, contradicts what both Nunes and the White House have said to the press over the past week.
"Nunes hasn't said much about his sourcing," Blake wrote, "but he has certainly suggested the only reason that he was on the White House grounds is because the information happened to be there and that it wasn't something that was fed to him by parties interested in confirming Trump's evidence-free claim that he was under surveillance during the 2016 election. The Times' report seriously calls that into question."
Indeed, calls for Nunes to recuse himself from the congressional probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election were already growing on Thursday afternoon:
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) March 30, 2017
This is not just a clownish charade. It is collusion in a cover-up. Nunes should resign his committee post. https://t.co/GibAXMNqNw
— David Rothkopf (@djrothkopf) March 30, 2017
— MoveOn.org (@MoveOn) March 30, 2017
Karen Hobart Flynn, president of the pro-democracy group Common Cause, in a statement charged the White House and Nunes (who served on the executive committee of Trump's transition team) with "playing partisan games."
"The White House is going to increasing and troubling lengths to influence and undermine the investigations of possible coordination between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government," she said. "It is becoming disturbingly clear that the White House will do anything to try to change headlines President Trump doesn't like."
Calling for an independent commission to investigate collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government—and for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to remove Nunes from his chairmanship—Hobart Flynn continued: "Instead of taking the Russian interference in the 2016 election seriously, President Trump, White House staff, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes are playing partisan games to try to distract Americans from the truth. It is absolutely inappropriate and unacceptable that a National Security Council staff member and an attorney from the White House Counsel's Office would deliberately attempt to covertly influence and undermine a congressional investigation of Russian efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election."