I still haven’t adjusted to the new political reality in which lawmakers need to warn people not to take the president literally, especially when he’s alleging a gigantic scandal involving the previous administration spying on him. But here’s the money quote today from Devin Nunes, head of the House Intelligence Committee, when asked whether he’s found anything during his investigation over the past week that would back up Trump’s wiretapping tweets about Obama:
House Intel Committee Chairman @DevinNunes: "Are you going to take the tweets literally? If you are then clearly the president was wrong."
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) March 15, 2017
Not the first time he’s encouraged voters not to take Trump literally. He went on to say, per the clip below, that he doesn’t believe there was any wiretap of Trump Tower, which the media is celebrating as a refutation of Trump’s now famous tweets. In reality, though, he’s making a point similar to the one Sean Spicer made a few days ago in Trump’s defense: Just because there was no wiretap, which is a particular form of surveillance, doesn’t mean that other forms of surveillance weren’t used on Trump associates. Specifically, he warns of “incidental” communications being intercepted and Americans’ names being “unmasked”; if you don’t know what that’s about, read this. It may be that the FBI, in the course of wiretapping Russian agents, picked up conversations between those Russians and American citizens, including associates of Trump. (Which doesn’t mean the conversations were nefarious.) When an American ends up recorded “incidentally” that way, the feds are supposed to minimize any information exchanged in the call when preparing a transcript of it unless it has “foreign intelligence” value. Part of the minimizing process includes masking the identities of the American on the call — unless, again, his or her identity needs to be known to understand the foreign intelligence value of the call.
What Nunes is worried about is either sloppiness or outright malfeasance in how the feds handled that process in the case of Trump’s staffers (assuming that, in fact, some of them were recorded via Russian wiretaps). Were the recordings truly “incidental” or did the feds wiretap particular Russians because they knew those people were in contact with certain Trump associates whom the feds wanted to surveil? If so, that would be “reverse targeting” of Americans, a legally dubious way of spying on U.S. citizens. Likewise, did the feds do a thorough job of masking the identities of any Trump associates caught on these calls when they prepared the transcripts or did they unmask them and circulate the transcripts to the media to damage Trump politically? Nunes is abandoning the core Trump claim of wiretapping in Trump Tower for the more plausible claim that U.S. intelligence was too aggressive in surveilling Americans connected to Trump, including Mike Flynn. That’s a smart play politically. We may know how smart very shortly: According to Sheldon Whitehouse, Comey may be ready to speak up about all of this as soon as today.
Jeff Sessions was asked this morning, by the way, whether he ever told Trump anything about wiretaps in Trump Tower, inspiring the now famous tweets. Nope, said Sessions. Wasn’t me.
House Intel Chair Devin Nunes: "We don't have any evidence" that Trump's wiretapping allegations took place. https://t.co/fyhJCi2A6Z
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) March 15, 2017