House Intelligence Committee chair Devon Nunes, who is a huge Trump ally who helped Trump on his transition, has just gone public with what appears to be blockbuster news: US intelligence picked up communications involving the Trump transition.
While initially wow-worthy, it appears that once again Nunes is providing a distraction for Trump’s disastrous week, rather than doing his job. What Nunes did was outrageous, and it proves once and for all that we need an independent investigation of Trump and Russia.
I’m rushing this out, so please excuse any typos.
What we know
Nunes is all over TV claiming that members of Trump’s transition — and possibly Trump himself, but possibly not (in other words, Nunes doesn’t know) — were caught up in “incidental collection” of ongoing National Security Agency intercepts. Meaning, the US routinely spies on foreigners around the world. While spying on those foreigners, we picked up conversations that members of the Trump transition — i.e., after the election — had with foreigners who we were spying on.
Nunes says that there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with the incidental collection itself. The intercepts were legal, and incidental collection happens all the time. (Just to reiterate, incidental collection is when we eavesdrop on a foreigner and an American happens to talk to that foreigner, and we collect the American’s conversation even though we never intended to spy on the American.)
What Nunes claims to be upset about is the inclusion of the names of those incidental Americans in government reports about the wiretaps. Nunes says the names should have been “masked” in the reports, they should have removed the names from the reports, but they didn’t.
But it gets stranger. Nunes found out about this today, and immediately went to tell Trump, even though Nunes is leading the investigation of Trump. Nunes claims that isn’t improper because the new information doesn’t fall under the Russia investigation. Nonetheless, Nunes now says he’s going to include this new information as part of his Russia investigation, even though a minute ago Nunes said it wasn’t a part of it so it wasn’t improper for him to run and brief Trump.
Nunes did not bother to brief the top Democrat on the House Intel Committee, Adam Schiff, making this look all the more partisan.
Why this matters
1. It’s important to recognize that Nunes isn’t claiming that Team Trump was illegally spied on. He’s claiming that their names should not have been included in government documents reporting on the collection.
2. Why is Nunes briefing Trump? Trump has this information via the NSA, which he runs. Nunes says the collection came via the NSA. So why isn’t the NSA director briefing Trump, why is the House Intel chair doing it? If this came from an NSA staffer, why didn’t that staffer report it to the NSA director himself? Is this an effort by Nunes to cast aspersions on the NSA director — Nunes couldn’t trust him to report it to Trump instead?
3. It sure looks like Nunes, who is as partisan as they come, is trying to help Trump by causing a huge distraction in the middle of the worst week in Trump’s presidency. You’ll recall that the House Intel Committee hearing earlier this week wit the FBI Director and the NSA Director was a disaster for Trump. Both men said there was no evidence that Trump had his wires tapped by Obama. And they revealed that there is an ongoing investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Add that to tomorrow’s vote on health care reform repeal, which isn’t going well, and Trump needed a distraction. Nunes just handed it to him.
4. Why didn’t this information come up during Monday’s hearing?
5. Trump said today that he feels partly vindicated by this news — Trump thinks this news helps prove the case that Obama had his “wires tapped.” In fact, it doesn’t. This news shows that perhaps the Trump transition got legally caught up incidentally. That is not “Obama tapping your wires.” But Trump, who isn’t known for nuance, will see it as just that. And that is a disaster for Republicans. Yes, this story will help detract from the bad news of the week. But it will also empower Trump’s worse instincts (which I wrote about earlier today). Trump will be on a renewed tear, convinced that his debunked conspiracies are all true. And that means more crazy tweets, and more crazy attacks from Sean Spicer at the White House podium. None of this is good news for Trump, his administration, the country or our allies.
This is why, in the end, we need an independent investigation of this entire Russia mess. Nunes is far too partisan to do a fair investigation — at the first chance, when it was needed most, Nunes ran to brief the very man he’s investigating. We need someone objective, someone independent, and someone(s) we all can trust.
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