Throughout the last week, there have been a chorus of calls for House intelligence chair Devin Nunes to step aside from his position in the committee, or at least recuse himself from investigations involving the Trump transition team. Nunes has refused all such requests.
But the truth is, neither demand approaches the level of censure that should fall on Representative Nunes for his actions and his words. He should resign from the House. Immediately.
At this point, it’s clear that Nunes didn’t make a momentary mistake or a bad call. He repeatedly, over an extended period, worked with the White House to mischaracterize both the information he had seen and the method by which it was received. The purpose of that deception was to distort both the nature and extent to which members of the Trump campaign and transition team had been under scrutiny of intelligence agencies. This in turn served multiple purposes:
- the continued effort to denigrate respect for, and degrade effectiveness of, the intelligence agencies
- supporting the narrative of “the deep state” and driving the impression that agency employees have a unreasoning vendetta against Trump
- distracting from the investigation into collusion with Russia and belittling both the investigation and the committee to make further progress more difficult
Nunes’ statements aren’t the outcry of a concerned representative. They are the result of a project initiated within the Trump White House—a project carried out by Devin Nunes, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, Michael Ellis, and John Eisenberg with the support and guidance of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.
Devin Nunes is certainly aware of the role he has played in the project. Paul Ryan, who has so far not only backed Nunes remaining in place at the head of the stalled House investigation, may be simply a dupe. And that’s giving Ryan the benefit of the doubt.
In Thursday’s White House Press conference, Sean Spicer repeatedly attacked reporters who asked about Devin Nunes’ manic trip to the White House, his flight to Paul Ryan, and his return to “brief” Donald Trump (complete with bracketing “I’m going” and “I’m back” press conferences). Spicer insisted that the contents of the documents was all that mattered. “Process” was the dirty word of the day.
Spicer could not be more wrong.
Yes, the contents of the documents in questions may be interesting—though early hints suggest that they are nothing more exciting than mentions of Trump associates picked up in routine conversations among foreign targets—but the process is vital. Content is that bag of money sitting in an apartment. Process is how it left the bank.
In this case, the process was clearly all about deception.
At least three senior White House officials, including the top lawyer for the National Security Council, were involved in the handling of intelligence files that were shared with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and showed that Trump campaign officials were swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign nationals, according to U.S. officials.
The White House generated this information. And it wasn’t low level staffers or long-term intelligence agents in “the normal course of business.” The information was provided to Nunes by men who found—or created—the information for purposes of driving a narrative.
The first of these was Ezra Cohen-Watnick. Cohen-Watnick—a Michael Flynn protege who shared his former boss’s disdain for the CIA—was nearly ousted from his role at the NSC just two weeks ago. But by that point he had already been hand selected to search for anything that could be used to support Donald Trump’s “wiretapp” distraction. When it seemed possible that Cohen-Watnick might be pushed into a place where he couldn’t properly support the project, he ran to Kushner and Bannon.
On Friday, McMaster told the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization. […]
But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team — White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday, and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.
Cohen-Watnick had to stay in place because he was critical to the project. He had the task of looking through the original documents for incidental pickup of Trump associates, turning those incidents into something that looked menacing, and passing on that information to the next man in the team.
John Eisenberg, the NSC’s top lawyer, was also put in place by Flynn. He was in the Justice Department during the Bush administration, where (not shockingly) he argued in favor of expanding government’s ability to conduct warrantless wiretapping. Eisenberg looked over Cohen-Watnick’s material and acted as coordinator for the project. He also brought in the necessary White House player.
Michael Ellis is another attorney in the Trump White House and reports to Eisenberg. But before joining on with Trump, Ellis worked for the House and directly with Devin Nunes. That existing relationship was important, because Ellis’ role in the project was to call Nunes and get him over to the White House, pronto.
From everything available now, this seems to be how the project took place.
In the early hours of March 4, Donald Trump tweeted that he:
"just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!"
At some point following Trump’s tweets, Ezra Cohen-Watnick was assigned to read through intercepts and other documents to find some support for Trump’s claims. This is why the White House continued to stall and make statements hinting that information was forthcoming.
Within a week, Cohen-Watnick’s desperate digging and pushing had proven so disruptive that National Security Advisor H.R. McMasters—apparently unaware of the project—decided something had to be done. He told the 30-year-old Cohen-Watnick he was being moved to a new position.
Cohen-Watnick appealed his move to Bannon and Kushner, explaining again how someone else in the role wouldn’t be able to find or generate the information Trump needed.
Bannon and Kushner took Cohen-Watnick’s appeal to Trump, who immediately overruled McMcaster.
Sean Spicer says that Trump didn’t mean a literal wiretap. "The president used the word wiretap in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities ...” paving the way for the use of intercept materials.
Devin Nunes says he does not believe Trump Tower was bugged, but says that Trump campaign communications could have been incidentally collected—an amazingly prescient statement that indicates Nunes had already been looped into the project at some level.
While traveling with staffers, Nunes received a text, which likely originated from Michael Ellis. Nunes was in a car at the time, but he jumped out of the car without informing others of what he had learned or where he was going.
Nunes then went to the White House, where Ellis may have been the one to sign him in. At this point, Nunes apparently went to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where both Ellis and Cohen-Watnick have their offices. There he met with Cohen-Watnick, Eisenberg and Ellis.
Though Nunes has described the information in various ways, saying both that “he knew the information” before he arrived and that he was “surprised” by what he read, it seems likely that Nunes did not view any original documents. Instead, he was given reports or summaries prepared for him by Cohen-Watnick. These summaries sometimes included the numbers for original documents, some of which Nunes says he recorded, but they were lacking in information that allowed Nunes to provide any details or answer questions about the real nature and setting of intercepts.
Early in the morning, Nunes has a meeting with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Why Nunes goes to Ryan remains unclear, but the things that Nunes says to Ryan are extremely interesting:
“He had told me that — like, a whistleblower-type person had given him some information that was new that spoke to the last administration and part of this investigation,” Ryan said. “He briefs me about it, didn’t know the content of it, only knew the nature of it and that he was going to brief others.”
It’s immediately clear that either Devin Nunes lied to Paul Ryan or Paul Ryan is lying. None of the three people that Nunes met with could possibly be construed as a “whistleblower” of any sort. They all have direct contact with either Trump or high officials in the White House, and far from making a discovery at odds with the desires of those above them, the three are directly working on a project to help Donald Trump. They are the opposite of whistleblowers. They are smoke blowers.
Ryan also states in several ways that Nunes has apparently not seen the actual documents. This again backs up the idea that what Nunes was shown was simply summaries or reports created for the purpose by Cohen-Watnick. How these reports align with the source documents is unclear. Ryan also says this about the end of his meeting with Nunes.
"He was going to brief everybody.”
Following his meeting with Ryan, Devin Nunes calls an unexpected press conference.
I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.
Nunes states that the information was apparently collected legally, and has nothing to do with Russia. Under questioning, he is unable to answer specifics, again supporting the idea that he has not seen actual documents, though he at one point calls the information “raw … reporting channels.”
At the end of the bizarre conference, Nunes announces that he is going to brief Trump. Even though he’s still hiding that the information came from inside the White House, this declaration strikes the assembled media as more than a little odd.
Reporter: You said you have to go and brief the administration— shouldn’t the administration be briefing you?
Nunes: Well, the administration isn’t aware of this, so I need to make sure I go over there and tell them what I know. Because it involves them.
What’s the impression Nunes has left with his Ryan meeting and his press conference? That a whistle-blower from outside the administration has given him information showing targeting of Trump or Trump associates, and now he needs to let those inside the administration know the details.
Off to the White House Nunes goes … again. Who he meets with or what he says on this second visit is even more unclear than his nighttime trip to the offices.
Later, Nunes holds press conference #2.
Nunes: Today I briefed the President on the concerns that I had about incidental collection and how it relates to President-elect Trump and his transition team, and the concerns that I had. As I said earlier, there will be more information, hopefully by Friday. The NSA is cooperating very very well. And lastly I’ll say that the reports that I was able to see did not have anything to do with Russia or the Russia investigation or any ties the Trump team.
Nunes’ actions in running to give the main subject of an ongoing investigation information related to that investigation, continues to strike some of the reporters as not quite right.
Reporter: Why is it appropriate for you to brief President Trump given that it’s his own administration or campaign associates that are a part of this investigation? Doesn’t it appear to be interference in some form?
Nunes: Because what I saw has nothing to do with Russia and nothing to do with the Russia investigation. It has everything to do with surveillance activities, and the President needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there, and I have a duty to tell him that.
Again Nunes feeds the idea that this information has come from that mythical whistleblower outside the White House, and that the only way Trump could learn about it is for Nunes to break the news.
And that’s clearly the goal of the project: Not just to get out the word that “Trump was right all along!” but to do so in a way that makes even the discovery of that information part of the heroic fight against the deep state.
Just one day later, Nunes was ready to tone down some of his statements. Through an aide, Nunes admits that he didn’t know “for sure” whether or not anyone related to Trump was captured in the source documents. So according to Nunes, the information he saw had nothing to do with Russia, and maybe nothing to do with Trump, and … why were we talking about this?
At this point, Nunes seemed to realize that he was going off of what Ellis and Cohen-Watnick provided, and perhaps that he had been played.
On Wednesday, Nunes (R-Tulare) said that names of transition team members had come up in conversations that were referred to in U.S. intelligence documents summarizing surveillance. But until Nunes sees the actual documents, he does not know whether any of the transition officials were actually part of the surveilled conversations or were just talked about by others, spokesman Jack Langer said Thursday.
Five days after the rogue press conference, stories begin to emerge that Nunes’ missing hours were spent at the White House. Nunes at first refuses to confirm, then says he went to the White House because he needed to see documents on a secure network only available to the executive branch. This might make some sense if Nunes was looking at original communications intercepts, but he’s made it clear he didn’t. Instead he has seen only Cohen’s summaries, which, according to normal protocol, could have been sent to Nunes’ office, or the chambers of the intelligence committee. Anywhere. In fact, the only network that has brought Nunes to the White House is the Ellis/Eisenberg/Cohen-Watnick network who are running this project with Nunes as the public face for their “data.”
Nunes’ admission that the White House was the source as well as the destination of his info validates all those concerns that appeared at his original press conference. Why was he briefing the White House on information that was generated inside the White House? Even a real whistleblower inside the NSC, bringing forth information that wasn’t desperately wanted by the boss, has a mechanism for getting information right to the top—and that mechanism doesn’t include Devin Nunes.
Nunes says he will never reveal the source of his information, not even to the members of the committee. By this point, both the administration and Ryan have been “briefed” for nearly a week. In fact, all the suspects have been briefed, but none of the police. And Nunes says that’s never going to happen.
Nunes cancels the next public hearing on the Russia investigation, which would have included an appearance by former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
Ellis and Cohen-Watnick are identified by the New York Times.
Minutes after the Times story emerges, Sean Spicer announces that the administration has sent a letter to both Nunes and ranking committee member Adam Schiff, inviting them to come to the White House to view documents. Spicer refuses to say if these are the same documents that Nunes viewed. It’s likely they are actual intercepts rather than the reports that Cohen prepared, and also likely that they don’t come close to Cohen’s version in “validating” Trump. The miraculous timing of this letter allows Spicer to avoid most questions about how Nunes went from the White House to the White House, and he begins his rant about “process.”
The Washington Post adds Eisenberg to the list of those who handled the information Nunes “discovered.”
Sean Spicer says that his sources indicate that the reporting on sources is wrong … but he offers no alternative.
Throughout this period it’s clear that Devin Nunes was a participant in a project to derail the Russia investigation. There’s no noble cause behind that project, not even loyalty. It’s a direct threat to discovering the truth about collusion between the Trump team and Russia, and an even greater threat to the integrity of the intelligence community.
Nunes lied to the press, the public, and fellow congressmen. He did so maliciously with the intent of damaging the process and distorting the facts.
Resignation should be the first step.