Rep. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence, held a hastily convened press conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Standing in a hallway in front of a staircase, he announced that he had startling information to share: The US government had intercepted communications between Trump’s transition team and foreign nationals in the three months prior to Trump taking office.
“On numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition,” Nunes announced. “Details about US citizens, details with little or no foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.”
This immediately raised two major questions. One, does this vindicate President Trump’s claim that former President Obama wiretapped him? Two, does this have anything to do with the ongoing investigations into the Trump team’s ties to Russia?
The answer to both questions, as the press conference went on, appeared to be no — which made the point of the revelations themselves rather confusing. Nunes struggled to explain why what he had discovered was important and, on a more basic level, to communicate what it was he had discovered in the first place.
Yet this didn’t stop Trump from claiming, when asked by reporters later, that Nunes’s disclosures “somewhat” vindicated his wiretapping claims. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, lashed out at his colleague for sharing the information with the White House before doing so with him or the committee itself.
By the end of the day, the comments were at the center of a new partisan firestorm over Trump’s initial — and widely debunked — claims that Obama had wiretapped his communications. The aftershocks will propel the Trump wiretapping story back to the top of the political conversation.
Yet the basics of Nunes’s allegation are still extremely confusing. So what follows is a guide to what Nunes said, what he left out, and the false narrative already coming from the president and his allies that this vindicates the wiretapping claim.
What Nunes said
There were a few key phrases in Nunes’s statement and subsequent Q&A that helped clarify what, exactly, he claims to have discovered.
The first is “incidentally collected.” In intelligence jargon, that means the Trump officials were not the target of surveillance — that what they said was “incidentally” picked up by surveillance intentionally targeting someone else.
The second is “legally collected foreign intelligence.” What Nunes meant here is that the communications were between Trump officials and a foreign national, under surveillance authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA allows secret courts to issue surveillance warrants for non-Americans.
Third, Nunes flatly denied any link between what he saw and the Russian intelligence probe: “None of this surveillance was related to Russia, or the investigation of Russian activities.”
So put this all together and what Nunes actually found becomes at least somewhat clear. The US intelligence community, during legally authorized surveillance of foreign nationals, picked up communications between members of Trump’s campaign and some unspecified, but definitely not Russian, individuals.
US spies, per Nunes, hadn’t intentionally targeted the Trump team, but instead acquired some information about them over the course of normal activities.
What’s strange, according to intelligence experts, is there’s nothing scandalous in that. The US intelligence community routinely monitors communications between US officials and foreign dignitaries; there’s no reason to believe the Trump transition team would be exempt from that.
“That’s what the intel community specializes in — spying on foreigners!” Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and current senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, tells me. “Does the White House not presume that foreign nationals are being monitored by US intelligence when talking to US officials?”
What’s left unclear
If what Nunes did say didn’t tell us a lot, what he didn’t say opens up a whole series of tantalizing questions. There are at least seven open questions:
- Nunes contradicted himself on whether anything from Trump personally was caught up, initially saying “yes” but then later saying it was merely “possible” that the then-president-elect’s communications were incidentally collected.
- He didn’t specify any officials, aside from Trump, whose communications might have been collected.
- He didn’t specify which country the foreign nationals under surveillance belonged to, other than “not Russia.” Given all the scrutiny of the Trump team’s foreign ties to and business interests in a range of countries like China, it makes a difference which ones he was talking about.
- He didn’t specify what the calls were about. For all we know, this was just Trump staffers setting up congratulations calls with foreign leaders.
- He claims to have gotten the information personally from an unspecified source, and had not yet met with FBI Director James Comey to review the raw intelligence intercepts he was provided. Why would he go public without first consulting spies to see if what he had was actually worth sharing with the public?
- Nunes said he shared the information with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and then was going to the White House to brief them, personally, after his presser. Why would you do either of those things before getting input from the intelligence community that could help contextualize the information?
- Finally, he did not specify if these intercepts were part of an ongoing investigation into a foreign national. If they were, then it’s possible he compromised a US intelligence operation by revealing the existence of the tapes publicly.
Given the lack of crucial information, and Nunes’s failure to speak first with the FBI director, Bakos found the entire decision to go public somewhat confusing.
“This is cherry-picking information and then releasing it publicly,” she said. “This is not how an investigation should be done.”
Trump and his allies are falsely claiming it supports their wiretapping claim
One thing that is very clear, however, is that nothing Nunes said vindicates Trump’s claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Nunes said, explicitly, that “there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower.” The fact that the collection was “incidental” means there wasn’t any order to surveil Trump or his associates directly revealed by Nunes’s evidence. And Trump claimed that Obama spied on him during the campaign, while what Nunes was describing happened after the election.
“This does not back up Trump’s claim at all,” Bakos says.
Yet Trump, and some of his allies, seems to have taken it that way. Sean Hannity tweeted that it “confirms SURVEILLANCE VS @POTUS.” A pro-Trump Super PAC is already fundraising off the revelations:
Team Trump already fundraising off Devin Nunes's statement. pic.twitter.com/hfnul0EFiQ— The Reagan Battalion (@ReaganBattalion) March 22, 2017
This is leading some more observers to allege that this was Nunes’s plan all along: release information in an intentionally confusing fashion that allows Trump to more plausibly claim he was being surveilled intentionally, even though it shows nothing of the kind.
This is @DevinNunes doing President Trump and Congressional Republicans a favor by muddying the waters on the Trump/Russia investigation.— Evan McMullin (@Evan_McMullin) March 22, 2017
Exactly. Don't for one single second doubt that this is an entirely calculated move. https://t.co/ME5fCP9uIa— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) March 22, 2017
This is hard to prove, of course. But it’s clear these observers are right to be worried about the misuse of Nunes’s revelations — and to wonder if there was some way Nunes could have raised his concerns without also confusing the public.