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Politics & Policy

Thinking Through the New News About Nunes

This latest report, from the New York Times (if true), isn’t good for Nunes, nor is it good for Trump:

A pair of White House officials played a role in providing Representative Devin Nunes of California, a Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with the intelligence reports that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies.


The congressman has refused to identify his sources, saying he needed to protect them so others would feel safe coming to the committee with sensitive information. He disclosed the existence of the intelligence reports on March 22, and in his public comments he has described his sources as whistle-blowers trying to expose wrongdoing at great risk to themselves.

Several current American officials identified the White House officials as 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 and formerly worked on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee.

Interestingly enough, Cohen-Watnick appears to be a Trump, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner favorite. In fact, Trump himself apparently intervened to save his job when the new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster sought to replace him. Here’s our esteemed former National Review colleague, Eliana Johnson, writing with Kenneth Vogel in Politico two weeks ago:

President Donald Trump has overruled a decision by his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, to sideline a key intelligence operative who fell out of favor with some at the Central Intelligence Agency, two sources told POLITICO.

On Friday, McMaster told the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization . . . But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team — White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday, and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

The entire affair creates the impression White House officials used Devin Nunes to provide “external” validation for Trump’s wiretapping tweets, and it makes Nunes’s statements about his meetings look highly misleading. For example, this is what he said to Wolf Blitzer earlier this week:

BLITZER: In addition going to that secure room to look over these documents, do you have other meetings at the White House? Did you meet with the president or any of his aides while you were there that night?

NUNES: No. And in fact, I’m quite sure that people in the West Wing had no idea I was there.

Perhaps the Times report is wrong. Perhaps it’s correct, but there’s a way in which Nunes was still technically accurate (perhaps neither Ellis nor Cohen-Watnick knew where or when Nunes would look at the documents.) In any event, it remains puzzling why the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee would behave like a free agent, continuing to withhold key information even from his own committee. If he has any interest in assuring the public that he’s not acting purely as Trump’s advocate and is instead capable of conducting a competent, professional, and reasonably transparent investigation into one of the more important intelligence controversies of the last decade-plus, this news is hardly reassuring. 

The bottom line? We still don’t know anything more than we knew two days ago, but the reports make Nunes’s actions look even more problematic. Stay tuned. 


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