An already secretive, mysterious turn in the investigation of incidental surveillance of Trump transition staffers turns even more secretive and mysterious. Whoever it was who brought Nunes into the executive office building on the White House grounds and let him look at executive-branch intel won’t have his identity disclosed to other members of the Intelligence Committee:
U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said on Tuesday he will not divulge – even to other members of his panel – who gave him intelligence reports that indicated President Donald Trump and his associates may have been ensnared in incidental intelligence collection.
Asked by an ABC News reporter whether he would inform the other committee members about who gave him the reports he viewed on the White House grounds last week, Nunes said: “We will never reveal those sources and methods.”
“No one makes the media reveal its anonymous sources, right?!” Right, but Nunes isn’t just withholding his source from the public; he’s withholding it from colleagues on a committee tasked with analyzing and safeguarding sensitive information. The media does reveal its sources to its own editors. But then, Nunes has a problem that the media doesn’t: Leaks. No reporter has to worry that his editor is going to share the identity of his source with a rival news bureau. Nunes does have to worry about that happening if he shares his source’s identity with Adam Schiff and the Democrats, whose knives are already out for him.
As of late this afternoon, though, it’s not just Democrats who want Nunes off the Russia probe. Maverick House Republican Walter Jones has now also called on him to recuse himself. (“How can you be chairman of a major committee and do all these things behind the scenes and keep your credibility? You can’t keep your credibility!”) So has NRO contributor and former almost Trump primary challenger David French:
Yesterday Nunes acknowledged that he traveled to the White House before his March 22 press conference to review secret documents in the White House’s possession, then used the contents of those documents to “brief” the president and the press. In other words, the White House appeared to be using Nunes to brief itself. Rather than state its own case with its own evidence, it used Nunes to make it appear as if external investigation had at least partially validated Trump’s tweets.
Just at the time when the nation desperately needs adults to step forward who can give the public confidence that they not only understand the stakes of the Russia investigation, they also can be entrusted to conduct that investigation in good faith, Nunes unnecessarily poured gasoline on an already-raging fire. The American body politic is awash in conspiracy theories, mistrust, and wild claims of espionage and criminality. It needs leaders. It needs competence. It needs integrity…
Are you unconvinced? Let’s indulge in the simplest exercise in political integrity. If the roles were reversed, what would you argue? If Adam Schiff was the chairman, Hillary Clinton was president, and Schiff was secretly meeting at the White House for solo briefings then presenting that same “evidence” to the press as if he’d discovered it, you’d want him to step down. And you’d be right.
Good luck at this point getting any bipartisan acceptance of the verdict if Republicans on the House Intel Committee, chaired by Nunes, end up declaring Trump innocent in Russiagate after all. Question, though: Do his colleagues really need to know who Nunes’s source is? The underlying issue here, remember, is whether members of Trump’s transition team have been incidentally surveilled and their identities “unmasked” by the feds. Nunes has seen intelligence that suggests that they have, or so he says; he also told Eli Lake yesterday that “he made sure to copy down [the documents’] identifying numbers so he could request access to them formally for the rest of the committee.” If he makes good on that promise, what does it matter who showed him the documents?
Here’s the problem, though: Nunes also told Lake that “his source was not a White House staffer and was an intelligence official.” The concern among Nunes’s critics, as French explained above, is that it was the White House itself that secretly fed him the surveillance intelligence, “to make it appear as if external investigation had at least partially validated Trump’s tweets.” If that’s true then it calls Nunes’s independence into question; if he was willing to secretly cooperate with the White House in its surveillance spin, it’s fair to ask how hard on them he would be if something incriminating emerged during the Russiagate probe. The only way to know if Nunes’s source is in fact a White House apparatchik is for Nunes to … identify the source to his colleagues. But he says he won’t do it. So how can they, or anyone else, fairly judge his independence at this point?
Exit question: Assume the White House did provide the surveillance intelligence to Nunes. Why didn’t they just leak it to a reporter instead? Handing it off to a fellow Republican who used to be on their transition team and who, conveniently, viewed the intel in the executive office building right there on the White House grounds was guaranteed to have Democrats howling that Trump had put Nunes up to this. They could have used a middleman to send it over to the New York Times instead. Relatedly, how did Nunes not realize how bad it would look if he snuck off to the WH grounds, without any colleagues from the Committee in tow, to view intel that just so happened to be favorable to Trump and thn decided to brief the press and the president before briefing his own Committee? The best argument that the White House didn’t put him up to this, I think, is that Nunes certainly would have taken better precautions against such an obvious appearance of collusion if they had.