By Katie Bo Williams - 03-22-17 20:51 PM EDT
In an extraordinary move, the chairman of the House panel investigating Russian interference in the presidential election bypassed his own committee Wednesday to brief President Trump on information related to U.S. surveillance of his transition team.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said he had learned from a source that the U.S. intelligence community incidentally collected information on members of Trump's transition team and then "widely disseminated" the information internally.
Democrats on the committee were blindsided, as were many Republicans. By the end of the day Wednesday, Nunes was still the only committee member to have seen the intelligence in question, according to the committee's top Democrat.
The move outraged Democrats and threatened to plunge the committee into open partisan warfare.
"The unprecedented comments of Chairman Nunes are an act of diversion and desperation," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "The Chairman's highly irregular conduct with the White House raises serious questions about his impartiality, especially given his history as part of the Trump Transition team.
"Chairman Nunes is deeply compromised, and he cannot possibly lead an honest investigation."
Nunes was a member of the Trump transition team's executive committee and has in the past raised eyebrows with his apparent willingness to follow White House requests.
In February, Nunes agreed to a White House request to call a reporter to dispute a report that the FBI had uncovered contact between Russian officials and the president's campaign. He had already made a similar statement publicly.
Nunes defended his decision to go directly to the president with the information because "what I saw has nothing to do with Russia and nothing to do with the Russia investigation."
"It has everything to do with possible surveillance activities, and the president needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there, and I have a duty to tell him that," Nunes said.
But alleged surveillance of the Trump campaign became part of the committee's investigation after the president's claim early this month that former President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower - making Nunes's decision to cut out members of his own committee unusual.
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said Nunes's action "impedes our ability to do this investigation the way we should."
"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 if he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House - because he cannot do both," Schiff said.
"If the Republican Party wants to do what is best for this country and its national security, they will remove Devin Nunes as Intel Chairman," MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted.
The exact nature of Nunes's pronouncement remains unclear. Yet it closely tracks with the longstanding contention of Republicans that the "real story" when it comes to the Russia investigation is the "unmasking" of individuals caught in surveillance and the leaks of sensitive information to the press.
Nunes, who described himself as "alarmed" by what he had learned, said that the collection had been perfectly legal - but raised questions about who requested that the names of Trump associates be "unmasked."
Under U.S. surveillance law, intelligence agencies may legally use information gathered on Americans as long as it is intercepted "incidentally" - meaning that the U.S. person is not the target of the surveillance.
But personally identifying information is supposed to be hidden to protect the identities of U.S persons, unless officials request that those names be exposed internally.
During a marathon public hearing Monday on the Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation, Republicans repeatedly pressed FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers on who has that authority.
In one exchange, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) ran through a list of senior Obama administration officials, demanding to know if they had access to unmasked names - appearing to suggest that they may have been the source of media leaks about the Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russia.
Democrats have tolerated the Republican focus on leaks - but that patience may be short-lived after Wednesday.
Last week, Nunes and Schiff together said that they were pressing the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency for information on Trump associates who may have been incidentally spied on and whose names were later unmasked and the intelligence details leaked to the media - such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
But on Wednesday afternoon, committee member Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) called Nunes's announcement "political theater."
Some committee Republicans backed the beleaguered chair. Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) told reporters that the discovery "raises very serious questions" about the unmasking and dissemination of names.
According to Nunes, the intercepted communications had "little or no apparent foreign intelligence value" and had nothing to do with either Russia or the FBI's eight-month-old probe into coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Both Nunes and Schiff maintained that the discovery - whatever it entails - does not substantiate the president's claim that Obama wiretapped him.
Trump said Wednesday that he felt "somewhat vindicated" by Nunes's statement.
The White House has tried to argue that Trump meant "wiretap" as in surveillance generally, though Republicans and Democrats have largely rejected that assertion.
Comey on Monday rebutted those claims, part of a one-two blow to the White House that day. He also confirmed the FBI's investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The timing of Nunes's announcement did not escape Democrats.
"I'm not sure what the point of this extraordinary process is and I have to hope this is not a part of a broader campaign by the White House aimed to deflect from the director's testimony earlier this week," Schiff said.