Comments made today by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R- Calif.) are being construed by many on the right to confirm President Trump’s tweets alleging that the Obama Administration wiretapped the Trump Tower during the campaign. In reality, Chairman Nunes’s statement falls short of substantiating Trump’s claims, but does allege misbehavior by the intelligence community.
“I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show that the president-elect and his team were, I guess, at least monitored,” Nunes said in Politico. “It looks to me like it was all legally collected, but it was essentially a lot of information on the president-elect and his transition team and what they were doing.”
Nunes described the surveillance as “incidental collection,” which Politico notes “can occur when a person inside the United States communicates with a foreign target of U.S. surveillance. In such cases, the identities of U.S. citizens are supposed to be kept secret — but can be ‘unmasked’ by intelligence officials under certain circumstances.”
Nunes’ statement does not seem to be a revelation. The story that Trump aides were under investigation for their ties to Russia broke before the election. The evidence of Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak came from FBI surveillance of the Russian official. This would fall under the category of “incidental collection.”
Nothing in Chairman Nunes statement indicates that there was any surveillance targeted at Mr. Trump or the Trump Tower. In fact, Nunes reiterated that he had no evidence that any surveillance was conducted in the Trump Tower.
Nunes identified four concerns about the new information. First, that information was “incidentally collected” about members of the Trump transition team. Second, details about members of the transition team “with little or no intelligence value” were widely disseminated in intelligence circles. Third, additional members of the transition were “unmasked” by the surveillance. Finally, Nunes said, “None of this surveillance was related to Russia or the investigation of Russian activities or the Trump team.”
Nunes said that the Intelligence Committee planned to investigate further to determine who was aware of the intelligence collection, why it was not reported to Congress, who requested the additional unmasking, whether there was any direction to focus on the Trump team and whether any laws were broken.
“Investigators are not supposed to ‘brief’ the folks being investigated,” retorted Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.).
On Monday, FBI Director James Comey acknowledged that members of the Trump campaign were under investigation for their ties to Russia, but, at the same time, said that he had “no information” to substantiate Trump’s wiretap claim. Comey also noted that “no individual in the United States can direct electronic surveillance of anyone.”
If Nunes had actually confirmed that President-elect Trump had been under surveillance, then Director Comey would have necessarily been lying. If Comey lied to Congress, especially on an issue in which he conflicted with President Trump, the president would have no choice but to fire him. The fact that Comey has not been dismissed is proof of the lack of evidence for Trump’s claim.
While President Trump told Fox News that he felt “vindicated” by Chairman Nunes’s statement, as commander-in-chief, Trump would have both the access and the authority to present evidence to substantiate his wiretapping claim if any such evidence existed. Numerous Republicans have urged the president to back up his claim with evidence, but nothing has been forthcoming.
Last week, Press Secretary Sean Spicer even attempted to soften the president’s accusations by saying on CNN, “The President used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities.” Spicer also said that Trump’s tweets referred to the Obama Administration as a whole rather than the former president individually, even though one tweet called Obama a “Bad (or sick) guy!” [The exclamation is present in the original tweet].
The entire brouhaha over the wiretapping tweet has followed the classic pattern that starts with Donald Trump making an outlandish claim. When asked to withdraw or back up his statement, Trump typically doubles down without providing evidence. At that point, pundits start twisting facts as well as the president’s words to make each match the other.
At this point, there are numerous loose ends to tie up. The FBI investigation of Russian meddling and links to Team Trump is still underway. The House investigation of intelligence dissemination of Team Trump is just getting started. There are many unknowns but one thing seems certain: Obama did not wiretap Trump Tower.