The embattled House intelligence committee chairman, Devin Nunes, has said he had no choice under classification rules except to view sensitive documents at the White House, a statement likely to intensify speculation that the Trump administration fed Nunes the material.
The documents ostensibly related to intelligence collection on Donald Trump. The source who made them available to Nunes “could not simply put the documents in a backpack and walk them over to the House intelligence committee space”, Nunes’ office said on Monday, addressing the latest twist in a controversy that is now overshadowing the committee’s politically charged investigation into Kremlin interference in the 2016 election.
Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer refused to rule out the idea that Nunes might have got some of his information from within the White House. “I can’t say 100%,” he told reporters at his regular briefing. Pressed on whether it was possible, he said: “Anything’s possible.”
Spicer repeatedly refused to offer any details about why Nunes was on the White House grounds and whom the California congressman was meeting with. “I’m not going to get into who he met with or why,” he said, while insisting the White House “was not concerned” over the possibility of classified information being leaked to Nunes.
Nunes, a member of Trump’s national security transition team, has come under sustained criticism for obstructing a high-profile investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia that he is running – a charge likely to intensify over the coming days.
On Wednesday, the California Republican stunned Washington by suggesting that communications from Trump’s associates were incidentally collected as part of “lawful” surveillance, with their identities insufficiently masked.
Contradicting testimony from the FBI and NSA directors, Trump claimed Nunes’ remarks provided a modicum of vindication for the president’s baseless claim that Obama placed Trump Tower under surveillance, something even Nunes continues to deny. Nunes has said the intelligence collection that “alarmed” him did not concern Russia.
Nunes informed the White House and the press before sharing any documents with the committee, a move that prompted Nunes’ Democratic counterpart, Adam Schiff, to publicly doubt the impartiality of the House inquiry, and for which Nunes reportedly apologized. Those concerns escalated after Nunes, who has still not shared the documents with his own committee, abruptly canceled a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday into the Trump-Russia question.
Nunes has dodged questions, primarily from CNN, that his source came from the White House, and intimated that whistleblowers from the intelligence agencies brought the surveillance documents to him. Nunes told Bloomberg View on Monday that his source was an intelligence official and not a White House staffer.
But Nunes’ office has acknowledged that the chairman viewed whatever surveillance documents he has acquired on the White House grounds, apparently at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the National Security Council staff works.
Viewing the documents at the White House came under immediate scrutiny, since the House committee possesses secure facilities where it frequently accesses classified information as part of its routine responsibilities.
But Jack Langer, Nunes’ spokesman, told the Guardian that Nunes saw at the White House “executive branch documents” that Congress does not have.
“Because of classification rules, the source could not simply put the documents in a backpack and walk them over to the House intelligence committee space. The White House grounds was the best location to safeguard the proper chain of custody and classification of these documents, so the chairman could view them in a legal way,” Langer said.
It remained unclear why, if Nunes’ source did not originate from the White House, viewing the documents had to occur at the White House complex. His explanation to Bloomberg was that the White House was the closest available location to access a classified computer network hived off from Congress. Nunes appears not to have paid visits to intelligence agency locations where the information would be accessible, including the offices of the director of national intelligence, FBI and NSA.
Langer did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about whether Nunes had in effect confirmed that his source for the documents came from the White House itself.
Nor did Langer respond to a question about whether Nunes would resign from his position.
By Monday afternoon, a Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Jackie Speier, called on Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation.
“Through his bizarre and partisan actions over the last week, Chairman Nunes has demonstrated to the entire nation why he is unfit to lead our critical investigation into ties between President Trump’s administration and Moscow,” Speier said in a statement.
Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House committee, was traveling on Monday and did not address the controversy. Like the other Democrats on the committee, Schiff wants an independent commission to investigate Trump and Russia.
Nunes has been a consistent ally for Trump on Capitol Hill. He was an ardent defender of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who had to resign after misleading the vice-president over conversations with the Russian ambassador concerning sanctions easement.
Nunes, during last week’s hearing, geared his questioning of the FBI director, James Comey, and the NSA director, Michael Rogers, about leaks alleged to have come from the intelligence agencies, not the intelligence agencies’ assessment of Russian interference in the election to benefit Trump.