Visit to WH grounds by Intel chairman clouds probe
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
WASHINGTON -- House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes went to the White House grounds to review intelligence reports and meet the secret source behind his claim communications involving Trump associates were caught up in "incidental" surveillance in the waning days of the Obama administration.
The location of the meeting, confirmed Monday by Rep. Devin Nunes' spokesman, revived questions about the independence of the committee's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election and Trump associates' ties with the Kremlin.
Democrats accused Nunes of coordinating with the White House, an allegation he has denied.
After reviewing the information last week, Nunes called a news conference to announce U.S. spy agencies inadvertently may have captured Trump and his associates in routine targeting of foreigners' communications. Trump seized on the statements as at least partial vindication for his assertion President Barack Obama tapped his phones at Trump Tower -- though Nunes and FBI director James Comey, as well as the committee's top Democrat, have said there is no such evidence.
The Senate intelligence committee also is conducting an investigation into Russia's interference in the election and possible ties with the Trump campaign.
And Monday, it announced Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner has agreed to be interviewed. The White House confirmed Kushner, a senior Trump adviser, had volunteered to be interviewed about arranging meetings with the Russian ambassador and other officials.
Kushner is the fourth Trump associate to offer to be interviewed by the congressional panels looking into the murky Russia ties. Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, Trump adviser Carter Page and Trump associate Roger Stone last week volunteered to speak as well.
"Mr. Kushner will certainly not be the last person the committee calls to give testimony, but we expect him to be able to provide answers to key questions that have arisen in our inquiry," the chairman, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, and the top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, said in a joint statement Monday.
The House investigation, meanwhile, has been plagued with partisan divisions under Nunes' leadership.
The chairman did not tell the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, about the meeting at the White House complex.
It is highly unusual for a committee chairman and ranking member not to coordinate meetings related to an investigation.
"'I think the chairman has to make a decision whether to act as a surrogate of the White House -- as he did during the campaign and the transition -- or to lead an independent and credible investigation," Schiff said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Spokesman Jack Langer said Monday that circumstances required that Nunes go to a secure room at the White House complex to review classified "executive branch documents that have not been provided to Congress."
In addition to the White House itself, the grounds include an adjacent building with offices for National Security Council and other executive branch employees.
"Because of classification rules, the source could not simply put the documents in a backpack and walk them over to the House Intelligence committee space," Langer said. "The White House grounds was the best location to safeguard the proper chain of custody and classification of these documents, so the chairman could view them in a legal way."
Nunes would not name the source of the information. In an interview with Bloomberg View on Monday, Nunes said the source was not a White House staffer and was an intelligence official.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer would not comment on whether White House officials were involved with Nunes.
"I'm not going to get into who he met with or why he met with them," Spicer said.
The clandestine meeting was remarkable for a committee that seeks to demonstrate bipartisanship, said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who has written extensively about separation of powers.
"Ideally, any meeting at the White House on a subject under investigation would have been done with the knowledge of the ranking member or his staff," Turley said. "Because these committees are the least transparent in Congress, both parties have historically tried to be open with each other on contacts or meetings with agencies on key questions."
The disclosure renewed calls for an independent committee to investigate the Russia ties.
Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on House Speaker Paul Ryan to replace Nunes as chairman of the intelligence committee.
"He has not been operating like someone who is interested in getting to the unvarnished truth. His actions look like those of someone who is interested in protecting the president and his party," Schumer said.
When Nunes disclosed the intelligence reports last week, he said what he reviewed had nothing to do with Russia, which could suggest that Trump associates were in touch with other foreign targets of U.S. intelligence surveillance in November, December or January.
"The chairman is extremely concerned by the possible improper unmasking of names of U.S. citizens, and he began looking into this issue even before President Trump tweeted his assertion that Trump Tower had been wiretapped," Langer said.
It is unclear exactly what documents Nunes reviewed.
Nunes and Schiff have asked the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency for the names of officials who were cited in intelligence reports. The committee has said it is getting some of what it requested, but has not received everything.