WASHINGTON â€” The White House claimed vindication while the House intelligence committee chairman privately apologized in the wake of his decision to brief President Donald Trump on secret intelligence intercepts related to a probe of Russian interference in the election.
Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican and member of President Donald Trump’s transition team, told reporters after his committee’s closed-door meeting Thursday that the presidential briefing was “a judgment call on my part” and added, “Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the wrong decision.”
Democrats expressed outrage that Nunes would meet with Trump before talking to committee members and cited the incident as another reason to question the panel’s independence.
Nunes told reporters he had seen new information showing that the communications of Trump transition officials were scooped up through monitoring of other targets and improperly spread through intelligence agencies during the final days of the Obama administration. He specifically stated that the new information he received did not support Trump’s allegations that President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap at Trump Tower.
Nonetheless, White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed that Nunes was “vindicating” the president following his unproven assertion about a wiretap, and Republican groups moved quickly to raise money off Nunes’ revelations.
The National Republican Campaign Committee blasted out an email with the subject “Confirmed: Obama spied on Trump.” The Republican National Committee made a pitch with the subject line “Vindicated” and went on to say, “President Trump has fought back and been vindicated time and time again.”
On Wednesday, Nunes spoke to reporters and the president without sharing the new information with Rep. Adam Schiff, the panel’s top Democrat. On Thursday morning, Nunes apologized to Schiff and other Democrats during a 20-minute meeting on Capitol Hill.
“It was a sombre discussion,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, a committee member.
Speaking to reporters after his apology, Nunes ducked questions about whether he was parroting information given to him by the White House, saying only that he was “not going to ever reveal sources.”
It’s common for Americans to get caught up in U.S. surveillance of foreigners, such as foreign diplomats in the U.S. talking to an American. Typically, the American’s name would not be revealed in a report about the intercepted communications. However, if there is foreign intelligence value to revealing the American’s name, it is “unmasked” and shared with other intelligence analysts who are working on related foreign intelligence surveillance.
The material picked up by intelligence agencies is typically classified. But Nunes’ office disputed that he had released classified information, saying the chairman “did not identify the targets of the surveillance and only spoke in general terms about the content.”
Obama administration officials disputed the suggestion that the outgoing administration had improperly monitored its successors. Former Vice-President Joe Biden weighed in on Twitter, saying the chairman of a committee investigating the White House can’t share information with that White House.
“Need select committee!” Biden wrote, echoing calls from other Democrats and a small handful of Republicans for an independent investigation.
Nunes’ disclosure came two days after FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed the bureau’s own investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia. Comey testified during the intelligence committee’s first public hearing on Russia’s election interference, an investigation being overseen by Nunes.
Nunes said the intercepted communications appeared to be legally obtained and were not related to the FBI’s Russia investigation. He said his concern was that the identities of the Trump officials were improperly revealed and the contents of their communications were “widely disseminated” in intelligence reports.
Schiff disputed Nunes’ suggestions that there was improper “unmasking.” He said that after speaking with Nunes, it appeared that the names of Americans were still guarded in the intercepts though their identities could be gleaned from the materials.
Nunes said the information on the Trump team was collected in November, December and January, the period after the election when Trump was holding calls with foreign leaders, interviewing potential Cabinet secretaries and beginning to sketch out administration policy.
Asked whether he believed the transition team had been spied on, Nunes said, “It all depends on one’s definition of spying.”
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.
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Julie Pace, The Associated Press