Devin Nunes' bizarre White House charade: New York Times reveals House intel chief's apparent source

Nunes reportedly met with two White House officials — before leaking classified info back to the White House

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 30, 2017 8:40PM (EDT)

Devin Nunes   (Getty/Win McNamee)
Devin Nunes (Getty/Win McNamee)

White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to deny a blockbuster new report from the New York Times on Thursday that revealed two high-ranking officials from the Trump administration helped the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee access classified information meant to bolster President Donald Trump’s infamous “wiretapp” tweets.

The Times reported Thursday that Rep. Devin Nunes of California learned of the alleged government eavesdropping after meeting with two senior Trump officials during a secret rendezvous on White House grounds last week. According to the Times, Nunes met with Michael Ellis, a former staffer on Nunes’ House Intelligence Committee who now works in the White House counsel’s office on national security issues, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director of intelligence at the National Security Council. Cohen-Watnick is a protégé of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after leaked intelligence reports showed he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence (and everybody else) about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

A day after his secret briefing, Nunes rushed to inform the president of his findings. He has since refused to reveal his sources, however, even to his colleagues on the Intelligence Committee.

At Thursday’s White House press briefing, Spicer did not deny the Times’ report. If the report is correct, then the Intelligence Committee chairman went to the White House to brief Trump on classified information that Nunes got from the White House in the first place.

Last week, Spicer tried to shoot down speculation that Nunes' unnamed sources were from the Trump administration. He said last Thursday, "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."

In a Bloomberg interview Monday, Nunes said his source was an intelligence official, not a White House staffer. In a brief statement Thursday after the Times report, Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said that "Chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source's identity, and he will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources."

While it has long been apparent that White House officials had to have been involved in Nunes' meeting on White House grounds -- there is no other way he could have gained access to the complex, the Times report will only increases the scrutiny surrounding a chairman already seen as too closely tied to Trump. Nunes, of course, served on the president’s transition team.

Curiously, Trump predicted during a March 15 interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that evidence supporting his tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of illegal wiretapping would be revealed “over the next two weeks.” One day after his White House rendezvous, Nunes revealed in a press conference that he had new information showing incidental surveillance of Trump’s team during the transition.

"The reports included details about the Trump transition, meetings of Trump and senior advisers, they were distributed throughout the intelligence community and to the White House," Nunes told reporters last week after FBI Director James Comey testified on Capitol Hill that there was no evidence to support Trump’s claims. "In some cases, there was additional unmasking of Trump transition team officials," Nunes claimed.

For his part, Trump has said he feels “somewhat vindicated” by Nunes' ambiguous revelation.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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