House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes apologized to members of his panel Thursday for not informing Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat, before going public with allegations that Trump transition messages were inadvertently intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies.
A committee aide said Nunes (R-Calif.) apologized “for not sharing information about the documents he saw with the minority before going public” and that “he pledged to work with them on this issue.”
The apology from Nunes came as congressional Democrats on Thursday slammed him for his perceived allegiance to the Trump administration, questioning whether he is fit to lead to an impartial investigation into possible ties between Trump’s associates and Russian officials.
Schiff (D-Calif.) told NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Thursday that committee members still haven’t been privy to the information Nunes shared with the White House. Nunes has said he is not in possession of the information yet and that he hopes it will be delivered to his committee on Friday.
“At this point, the only people who do know are the chairman and the president. And given that the president’s associates are the subject in part of the investigation, that’s wholly inappropriate, and, unfortunately, I think it really impugns the credibility of the chairman in terms of his ability to conduct an independent investigation,” Schiff said.
During an earlier, brief exchange with reporters Thursday morning, Nunes was asked whether the information he alluded to Wednesday came from the White House. Nunes stressed that “we have to keep our sources and methods here very, very quiet” and defended his “judgment call” to brief the president while other committee members were left in the dark, despite Trump and his associates being part of the focus of multiple investigations.
“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 that information because he has every right to see it,” Nunes told reporters.
Committee member Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said she believed Nunes’ accusations on Wednesday had been directed by the White House. She pointed to an interview Trump did with Fox News earlier this month in which he said his administration would be “submitting things” to the House Intelligence Committee “very soon.”
“I am of the opinion that this was orchestrated either from the White House or by … someone associated with the White House,” Speier said. “This is a three-act play, and we’re now seeing it.”
On Wednesday, Nunes held a news conference and then briefed Trump on evidence he had been shown by a “source” that, following November’s election, Trump transition team members were caught up in incidental surveillance of foreign targets. He said the identities of some of these transition team members had been “unmasked,” even though U.S. persons typically have their identities shielded when caught up in inadvertent surveillance, and that intelligence reports about the Trump transition were widely disseminated across the U.S. intelligence community.
Democrats countered that the unmasking of names should be something the committee tackles as part of its Russia investigation, not something that is immediately briefed to the White House.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday called Nunes a “stooge for the president of the United States.”
“I think he’s demonstrated very clearly that there is no way there can be an impartial investigation under his leadership on that committee,” Pelosi said. “It speaks very clearly to the need for an outside independent commission.”
Committee member Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who also called for a special commission to lead the investigation, said Nunes “betrayed the independence of our work” and owes the panel and the American people an apology for — and evidence of — his “stunt.”
“This is a pretty sad departure from a long tradition of doing the people’s work around national security and doing it without a, you know, loyalty to the administration, doing it with independence,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“He should have brought it to us first. He never, under any circumstances, should have taken this information to the president,” Swalwell continued. “The president’s campaign is under federal criminal investigation for its ties to Russia during the interference campaign. They are witnesses, essentially, and to take it to them, I think, conflicts the chairman out of the duties he has.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Benghazi Committee, said that panel “would have never allowed that to happen.”
“What [Nunes] did was basically to go to the president, who’s being investigated by the FBI and others, and by the intelligence committee, to give them information,” Cummings told CNN. “Basically, what he has done is he has scuttled and put a cloud over his own investigation. And he has become the subject, basically — he should be — of an investigation. It’s a real problem.”
Cummings advised Nunes to look no further than his Democratic counterpart for an example of how he should conduct himself. Schiff, for his part, said “everything” about Nunes’ bombshell announcement “was wrong.”
“If this is an issue of whether the unmasking of incidentally collected information was done properly, that’s something that the committee investigates,” Schiff said. “It’s not something to be taken to the White House and discussed in a press conference on the White House lawn. You know, the chairman’s not Sean Spicer.”
Trump first launched his explosive claim that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of his phones at Trump Tower via Twitter earlier this month. The White House has since suggested that Trump’s use of the term wiretap, which was in quotations, was actually intended to convey surveillance more broadly.
Trump told reporters Wednesday he felt “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’ statement, which he repeatedly referenced during a wide-ranging Time magazine interview published Thursday. Trump’s claim, however, was that Obama ordered surveillance during the campaign — Nunes said information on Trump’s transition team was collected after the election.
“This is another baffling twist in all this: The chairman, I think, again reiterated that this was not evidence of wiretapping of the president by his predecessor,” Schiff said. “So I think the most it is a bit of a smokescreen designed to give the president some cover, but that’s not the job of a chairman who is running a supposedly independent investigation. And, unfortunately, it’s just made our job that much more difficult.”
“I think we really have to keep in mind here: What’s the national interest?” he added. “The national interest is a nonpartisan and credible investigation into Russian meddling in our affairs, and these actions just make that almost impossible now.”
Madeline Conway contributed to this report.
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