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White House Officials Aided Nunes in Getting Intel: Reports

At least two White House officials were reportedly involved in giving House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes access to sensitive intel.
Image: Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Press On House Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes speaks to reporters during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 22.Win McNamee / Getty Images

At least two White House officials were involved in giving House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes access to intelligence reports that seemed to show that President Donald Trump and his associates were incidentally included in surveillance efforts, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Nunes went on to tell reporters that the president was surveilled in some capacity. He later went to the White House to brief them on his findings, ushering in a wave of criticism from Democrats, including ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The New York Times, citing several current American officials, named Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office, as the officials involved in liaising with Nunes.

Later Thursday, The Washington Post reported that three White House officials may have been involved in the exchange with Nunes.

NBC News has not independently confirmed The New York Times' or The Washington Post's reports.

Pelosi on Friday told TODAY that she has "never seen behavior this bizarre" in regard to Nunes' actions and again called for him to recuse himself from the intelligence investigation.

"Of course, he was a dupe. He was duped," she said. "That’s the most innocent, the most benign characterization."

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday had dismissed questions about the Times report, saying the press is assuming the reports are correct. Despite repeatedly being asked about the report's veracity, and the names cited, Spicer said the White House would not be commenting "on one-off anonymous sources that publications" publish.

He again chided reporters for an "obsession with who talked to whom and when" as opposed to focusing on the "substance" of what the investigation was finding.

Spicer also said he was "not aware of anything directly" when asked if the president directed the White House staffers to find proof of his wiretapping claims.

Spicer announced Thursday that it had sent a letter to ranking members on the House and Senate intelligence committees to view materials previously requested by members of Congress. These documents, the White House said were deemed "necessary to determine whether information collected on U.S. persons was mishandled and leaked."

Spicer would not confirm, however, that the information that would be shared was what Nunes was privy to last week.

Nunes and Schiff have both received letters from the White House, congressional sources told NBC News.

Read the White House letter

Schiff told reporters Thursday he would go read the documents the White House is providing, but that the timing of their finding concerned him, as they came on the say day as the Times report. He added that he received the White House letter on surveillance just as Spicer was announcing at his daily briefing that the correspondence had been sent.

While this new information is important to one piece of the House's ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Schiff made clear it won't distract the committee from delving deeper and continuing its probe.

"We're not going to be distracted," he said.

Spicer previously refused to rule out that Nunes' source, who has remained anonymous, was a White House official. A former top official at the White House National Security Council told NBC News that it had to have been an NSC insider who originally accessed the intelligence reports that were handed Nunes. He said no one from another agency would have been able to log on to the computer at the White House secure room, known as the SCIF.

The official added that a very small number of people at the NSC would have access to reports drawing on NSA intercepts that included “incidental collection” of Americans. Among them, he said, would be the people working in the intelligence directorate, which Ezra Cohen-Watnick heads.

One week ago, Spicer told reporters he didn't know why Nunes would brief the White House on something that they had previously briefed him on.

"I don’t know why he would brief the Speaker and then come down here to brief us on something that we would have briefed him on," Spicer said last week. "It doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense. So I'm not aware of it, but it doesn’t really pass the smell test.

Trump has used Nunes claims as validation of his still-unsubstantiated allegation that former President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones in Trump Tower. Trump also expressed appreciation to Nunes for bringing the information to the attention of the White House.

"I somewhat do — I appreciate him coming over," Trump said last week.

Nunes, for his part, still maintains there is no evidence that Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped.