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Devin Nunes's wiretapping claims came from his former lawyer and a 30-year-old Trump aide

House Votes On Trump's American Health Care Act (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

One of the biggest mysteries in the strange case of Rep. Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chair who’s trying — and failing — to substantiate President Trump’s wiretapping claims, may have just have been solved.

In a bombshell report Thursday, the New York Times named the sources who provided Nunes with classified intelligence reports purportedly validating some of Trump’s wiretapping claims — and both of them are Trump administration political appointees working directly in the White House complex.

That means Nunes — the lawmaker charged with leading an investigation into the administration’s unfounded wiretapping allegations — used information he received from the Trump White House itself to publicly try to deflect blame from Trump. It also means Nunes was misleading the American public when he said his sources were whistleblowers, and that he went to the White House compound because it was the only secure place to review classified information. (This is not true: Capitol Hill has secure facilities for just this reason.)

Instead, we now know Nunes’s sources, and they’re far from disinterested parties. They are Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence, and Michael Ellis, a White House counsel attorney who, prior to the Trump administration, worked for Nunes. Cohen-Watnick uncovered the raw intelligence, according to the Times, and Ellis briefed Nunes on it directly.

The Times story, sourced to “current American officials,” also reveals new information about the substance of the calls that Nunes was briefed on. According to the newspaper, the intelligence reports were intercepts of foreign officials’ conversations about the Trump team, not taps on Trump or his associates’ phones (it’s standard practice for US intelligence to spy on high-ranking foreigners).

“Officials said the reports consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about how they were trying to develop contacts within Mr. Trump’s family and inner circle in advance of his inauguration,” the Times’s Matthew Rosenberg, Maggie Haberman, and Adam Goldman write.

Put more bluntly: Members of the Trump White House selectively leaked classified intelligence that doesn’t actually support their boss’s claim to a credulous congressman who uncritically parroted the information in a press conference just hours later.

Oh, and one more thing: Nunes is supposed to be leading the House’s investigation into the Trump team’s ties with Russia. Even prior to this new report, he faced growing calls both to recuse himself from the investigation and to step down from his post as head of House Intelligence. House Speaker Paul Ryan had been standing by Nunes, which means Nunes may still be the one seeing the investigation through to the end. If he does, though, one thing seems certain: It will now be extremely hard to take any of his findings seriously.

The series of events here is deeply bizarre

The precise chain of events leading up to the March 22 presser, where Nunes told the public about the information he got, is worth unpacking — as it tells us something fundamentally disturbing about the whole saga.

It begins with Cohen-Watnick, who is — per a blockbuster Politico report — a rather controversial figure. He’s a 30-year-old Trump loyalist who developed a close relationship with Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner during the presidential transition. He was appointed to run the NSC’s intelligence staff by Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn (who was later fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US).

On March 4, Trump alleged — without providing any evidence — that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. “Shortly thereafter,” the Times reporters write, “Cohen-Watnick began reviewing highly classified reports detailing the intercepted communications of foreign officials.”

The clear implication of this Times claim is that Cohen-Watnick was looking for anything that could vindicate Trump’s wiretap claim.

About a week later, new National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster tried to get rid of Cohen-Watnick, whom the CIA reportedly didn’t trust because it saw him as hostile to them as an institution. On March 10, McMaster informed Cohen-Watnick that he would be moved to a different position in the NSC. On March 12, Trump personally intervened (reportedly at Bannon and Kushner’s prompting), overruling McMaster and keeping Cohen-Watnick in place.

Sometime during all of this, Cohen-Watnick found the intelligence intercepts that mention Trump officials. What happened between that unspecified date and the night of March 21 isn’t exactly clear. Ellis, the White House lawyer who used to work for Nunes, somehow got looped in and wound up briefing Nunes when the lawmaker got to the White House grounds.

What’s obvious is that Nunes was never particularly clear about what he had in his public comments, even after Ellis’s briefing. Initially, he said the surveillance contained intercepts of the president’s calls, and then backtracked and said it was possible. This was never confirmed; the most recent reports suggest Nunes isn’t even sure if any White House officials at all were taped in his intercepts.

All we know is that White House officials were mentioned by the parties on the call, who appear to be mostly foreign dignitaries discussing plans for getting access to the top people on the Trump team.

So, to recap.

A young White House official who owes his job to Trump personally begins sifting through wiretaps right after the president claims he was wiretapped. What he finds makes it into the hands of an attorney who used to work for the chair of the House panel investigating the Trump White House’s wiretapping allegations.

This attorney briefs his former boss on what he learned, but leaves him with such a garbled understanding of it that it seems like the wiretaps might vindicate Trump’s claim that Obama spied on him — even though they clearly didn’t. When the congressman goes public with the information, he omits the fact that he got the information from the White House.

And that’s only what’s come to light so far.

This report raises a ton of disturbing questions about Trump and Nunes

President Trump meets With Prime Minister Of Denmark Lars Lokke Rasmussen In The Oval Office (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

During his press briefing on Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to deny any of the claims in the New York Times report — which is basically as good as confirming them. This raises a lot of profoundly worrying questions:

  1. Was Cohen-Watnick, as seems likely, looking for evidence to vindicate Trump’s wiretapping tweets after the fact? If so, did he do it on his own — or did someone tell him to do it? (When Spicer was asked this at the press briefing, he literally said “umm” and refused to comment.)
  2. Who leaked the information to Nunes in the first place? Was it Ellis or someone higher up? If it was Ellis, was he ordered to provide it?
  3. Did Ellis know that this information didn’t actually vindicate Trump, and intentionally mislead Nunes during the briefing? Or did he and/or Nunes just not understand what Cohen-Watnick was looking at?
  4. Can Cohen-Watnick and Ellis be trusted to keep classified information secure after this incident?
  5. Most importantly, does this mean that the entire saga of Devin Nunes — which has derailed the House investigation into the Trump team’s ties to Russia entirely — originated with an attempt to play defense on an unsourced Trump tweet?

As Vox’s Yochi Dreazen has written, Nunes’s reputation has already taken a beating, with the top Democrat on his committee accusing him of doing the White House’s bidding and demands that he recuse himself from the probe, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi saying he’d tarnished the office, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer flatly calling for his removal.

In the meantime, Dreazen notes, Nunes has basically stopped his investigation:

Nunes has responded by digging in his heels even further. Himes told me the GOP chairman canceled the week's other planned hearings Nunes himself said the panel wouldn't move ahead with planned interviews with members of the Trump campaign staff, transition officials, and law enforcement and intelligence personnel until Comey returned for a closed hearing. That hasn't been scheduled, which means all of the panel’s Russia work has been brought to an indefinite halt.

Taken together, the increasingly strange saga of Nunes’s shadowy interactions with the administration and his improper interactions with questionable White House sources suggests that the Trump White House is deliberately politicizing intelligence to defend the president’s wackiest and most unsubstantiated tweets. It suggests the head of the House Intelligence Committee, who is nominally supposed to investigate the Trump White House’s wiretapping claims and ties to Russia, is complicit in this whole process.

One more thing: It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Nunes is the wrong man for the job. The fact that Republican leaders are unwilling to accept that says as much about them as it does about him.