WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's personal communications were picked up by U.S. intelligence operations that were monitoring foreign espionage targets, a top Republican said Wednesday in a major twist in the real-life spy drama unfolding in Washington.
The senior congressional watchdog on U.S. intelligence agencies, Devin Nunes, made that announcement to the news media, then went straight to the White House to brief the president on what he'd found.
Nunes said he had seen dozens of intercepted communications from November, December, and January between the Trump transition team and foreign targets who were under U.S. surveillance by legally obtained security-court orders.
But he suggested the material was then improperly spread.
Devin Nunes speaks to the media about President Donald Trump's allegation that his campaign was the target of wiretaps on Capitol Hill in Washington March 7, 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein)
He offered a crisp one-word answer when asked whether Trump's own communications were picked up: "Yes,'' he said. Later in a news conference, he elaborated only slightly: "It was clear who was in those reports.''
The dramatic events came just after the FBI announced that it had launched a criminal investigation into email hacking and collusion between Russian government entities and the Trump campaign team.
For some Trump fans, this latest event was something to celebrate. To them, it proved the president's claim that he was illegally monitored by the previous president and unfairly targeted by political enemies.
Trump himself appeared to agree when asked whether he felt vindicated: "I somewhat do."
Not necessarily good for the administration
Wednesday's revelations weren't quite what Trump alleged. The intelligence was collected in a legal way, Nunes said — but he said the material was improperly spread around to tar American citizens.
"I think the president is concerned — and he should be,'' Nunes said.
Yet this isn't necessarily good for the administration.
It was this kind of dissemination from intercepts that cost Michael Flynn his job. He resigned as Trump's No. 1 national-security official after reports of undisclosed communication with Russia's ambassador to the U.S.
Flynn has subsequently been immersed in even hotter water.
“There's nothing criminal (about the collection itself)."
— Devin Nunes
Now the House intelligence committee has demanded documents on his paid work for agencies linked to Russia's Putin government — this on the same week as reports that allege Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, hid millions in revenues from political work for Putin.
Nunes himself shot down the idea that Barack Obama wiretapped his successor, a claim Trump made that later caused a spat involving him, Fox News, Germany, and the United Kingdom's spy agency.
"That never happened,'' Nunes said of Trump's allegations against Obama, adding in a later CNN interview: "(Trump's) not right about that.''
"It looks like it was legal collection (from espionage targets). Incidental collection... There's nothing criminal (about the collection itself)."
Devin Nunes went straight to the White House to brief the president on what he'd found. (Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Nunes added new clues to the spy story at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
He revealed that there were multiple warrants granted for surveillance targets by U.S. intelligence courts, and he confirmed that he saw details that might have intelligence value.
To obtain those warrants, American officials must convince the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that an espionage target is either a foreign power or the agent of a foreign power.
Nunes specified that he read dozens of documents and none were related to Russia.
Donald Trump said he felt "somewhat" vindicated by the revelations. (Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
It's unclear who selected which documents to show Nunes — and who provided them. Nunes runs one of two congressional committees responsible for keeping a check on U.S. spy agencies.
The system was created after multiple revelations of abuses of power at by the CIA in the 1970s, which led to the creation of committees in the Senate and House of Representatives.
Nunes is the chairman of the House one.
His Democratic colleagues were livid Wednesday — they called it unprecedented that he would run to the media with classified material before sharing it with his colleagues, then share it with the president involved.
That's why they want an independent inquiry into Russia's involvement in the last American election. They do not trust the Republicans.
U.S. system criticized for hyper-partisanship possibility
"(This) casts quite a profound cloud over our ability to do our work,'' said Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on Nunes' committee.
"The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation... or he's going to act as a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both.
"Unfortunately I think the actions of today throw great doubt into (his) ability.''
It's a different system from Canada's.
In Canada, the checks on potential abuses are undertaken by a citizens' body appointed by the government. Several prominent people, including former prime ministers, have called for Canada to create a parliamentary body — which exists in several countries, and defenders of the U.S.-style system say it distributes power to a variety of people, from different political backgrounds.
But detractors of the U.S. system say it creates its own risks — including hyper-partisanship clouding serious issues.