Breaking News Emails
President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday he feels “somewhat” vindicated after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes' revelation that he has seen reports from the U.S. intelligence community showing communication from members of the transition team — and possibly from the president himself — were "incidentally collected" as part of a broader surveillance effort.
Nunes said he was “alarmed” by the findings and trekked to the White House Wednesday afternoon to personally brief President Trump.
"What I’ve read bothers me,” Nunes told reporters outside the White House after sharing his findings with the president. “And I think it should bother the president himself and his team because I think some of it seems to be inappropriate."
"I appreciate him coming over," Trump said when asked by reporters about the visit.
Spicer called Nunes' claims a "startling revelation" and lambasted what he saw as the media's "presumptive" tone of negativity toward the administration on the issue.
Nunes did not share the information with the ranking Democratic member of the intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, before telling reporters or updating the White House. He said the intelligence agencies will have to provide the reports to the intelligence committee in order for any Democrats to see them.
Schiff told reporters in an impromptu press conference later Wednesday that his Republican counterpart's actions jeopardized the credibility of the committee's ongoing investigation.
"The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct, which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he's going to act as a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both," Schiff said.
Schiff has not seen the reports that Nunes briefed reporters, the House Speaker, and the president on Wednesday and said he could not verify their contents.
Schiff also told NBC News' Chuck Todd that there is "more than circumstantial" evidence of collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Russians.
Wednesday's back-and-forth centered, in part, on "incidental collection" of information which occurs when a foreigner under surveillance calls an American, and that conversation is picked up. The American side of the conversation is usually blacked out in any intelligence report that is generated.
However, the American’s name and what he or she said can be “unmasked” if there is evidence of a crime, or if the information is needed to understand the foreign intelligence.
Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, testified to Congress this week that 20 people at the agency, including him, have the authority to unmask the American side of an intercepted conversation.
Earlier in the week, Nunes said evidence was so far lacking for the president’s claims that former President Barack Obama illegally ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower before the November election. On Monday, FBI Director James Comey, in testimony before Congress Monday, refuted Trump's claim that Obama wiretapped his communications.
The FBI, the NSA, the Department of Justice, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have all said they've seen no evidence to support Trump's claims.
Nunes, did not explain the change in tone during a press conference at the White House on Wednesday.
He told reporters he saw “some level of surveillance activity, perhaps legal, but I don’t know if it’s right.”
The collections were not related to investigations into Russia and its alleged connections to the Trump campaign, Nunes said.
Nunes told reporters the collection appeared to be “normal” and “all legally collected foreign intelligence under” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
"I believe it was all done legally. I think it was all obtained legally. The question is was it masked," Nunes told reporters earlier in the day.
He would not identify the source of this material and implied he had seen it independently. He said he briefed House Speaker Paul Ryan about the documents Wednesday morning.
Legal experts say the incidental collection of U.S. government officials’ communications in intelligence surveillance is routine, and on its own, does not indicate anything about who is the target of such surveillance.
Generally, it is illegal for U.S. officials to publicly disclose the targets of FISA warrants, unless pre-approved by a court or if declassified through the executive branch process.
Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer for the CIA and the NSA, told NBC News that the fact that an American was picked up in surveillance of foreigners “in and of itself, doesn’t mean a thing. All it means that a person on watch is talking to a U.S. person. The general rule is that the U.S. person identity is minimized, so all you have is the one side, unless a crime has been committed or the identity of the American is necessary to understand the intelligence.”
Deitz said he thought it was “rather interesting,” that more than one person on Trump’s transition team were picked up, because it’s not that common for Americans to be talking to foreign surveillance targets.