House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) receives a communication on his phone and promptly goes to the White House to review intelligence reports alleging the President and his associates had been “incidentally swept up” in legal foreign surveillance by American spy agencies. Nunes’ sources include two White House lawyers, John Eisenberg and Michael Ellis, as well as Ezra Cohen, the National Security Council staffer who gathered the intelligence reports.
As part of their ongoing attempt to deflect attention from ongoing revelations about collusion with Russia, the Trump administration and its allies in Congress, most notably the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA,) have claimed that the Obama administration engaged in illegal surveillance of the Trump campaign and leaked the information they obtained to damage the Trump administration. In March and April, this led to a scandal that briefly resulted in Nunes recusing himself from the investigation.
Trump first claimed that the Obama administration had surveilled his campaign on March 4, 2017. That morning, Trump tweeted that President Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” When pressed about the charge, the White House ultimately acknowledged that it had no evidence that Obama had ordered Trump’s wires tapped, but claimed that, because Trump had initially made the allegation in quotes, he was referring not to actual wiretapping but to general surveillance.
Nunes first became involved in claims about illegal surveillance by the Obama administration on March 21, 2017. That day, Nunes reportedly received a communication on his phone and promptly took an Uber to the White House to review intelligence reports alleging that Trump and his associates had been “incidentally swept up” in legal foreign surveillance by American spy agencies. Nunes additionally alleged that the data he had seen indicated that Obama administration national security officials, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and CIA Director John Brennan, had “unmasked,” or received the identities of, the Trump associates whose communications had been intercepted. Nunes’ sources have since been revealed to include two White House lawyers, John Eisenberg and Michael Ellis, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, at the time a staffer on the National Security Council.
The next day, Nunes informed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of the intelligence he had received related to Trump and his associates having been intercepted in foreign surveillance. After holding a press conference, Nunes then went to the White House to “brief Trump on his findings,” which Trump later said “somewhat” vindicated his claim that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
On March 23, however, Nunes held another press conference in which he lied about the source of the intelligence, saying, “The president didn’t invite me over, I called down there and invited myself because I thought he needed to understand what I say and he needed to get that information.” This statement was later proven false, as Nunes had in fact received the intelligence from the White House in the first place. Facing an ethics investigation into his handling of sensitive material, Nunes announced on April 6 that he would be recusing himself from his committee’s investigation into Russia. On December 7, however, Nunes was cleared by the House Ethics Committee, allowing him to resume his leadership of the Russia investigation.
Even during the period of his recusal, Nunes continued to run interference for the White House by attempting to refocus the controversy around Rice’s decision to unmask Trump associates’ identities in intercepts. On July 27, Nunes wrote a letter to the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in which Nunes claimed that “current and former government officials had easy access to U.S. person information and that it is possible that they used this information to achieve partisan political purposes, including the selective, anonymous leaking of such information.” On August 3, however, Bloomberg reported that Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had concluded that Rice had violated neither the law nor intelligence community protocol.
The Trump administration’s charges of improper surveillance resurfaced in September 2017, when CNN reported that a secret court had twice authorized surveillance of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and that this surveillance had overlapped with Trump’s campaign. Though Trump’s allies claimed the report substantiated Trump’s tweets about wiretapping, there was no indication that Trump himself had been under surveillance, nor even that the surveillance had intercepted any conversations in which he participated.
In January 2018, Nunes penned a classified memo, which criticized the FBI for its actions while obtaining a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to surveil former Trump adviser Carter Page. The memo was released by the White House on February 2. On March 12, the House Intel Committee ended its investigation into the connections between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. They will reportedly conclude that there is no evidence of collusion, notably diverging from the intelligence community’s previous determination that part of the Kremlin’s strategy was to assist the Trump campaign.