Congressional Democrats are pressing a fresh angle in their quest to hammer President Donald Trump over tenuous connections to the Russian government: a briefing the president received at the White House from a congressional intelligence chief.
On Monday afternoon, infuriated by remarks from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Democrats asked for Nunes to step down from the committee.
“We don’t have networked access to these kinds of reports in Congress,” Nunes told Bloomberg on Monday.
The calls for a resignation are not necessarily a sign Nunes is in trouble. Rather, they are likely a sign that Democrats feel Nunes’ remarks — that Trump and his transition team were incidentally monitored, that their identities were deliberately “unmasked,” and that the raw intelligence was inappropriately shared throughout levels of government — have mortally wounded the narrative that Trump and his surrogates were tools of the Russians in the election.
Instead, the questions could become: Had paranoia about Russia gripped the last weeks of the Obama administration, and did the intelligence community take potentially illegal steps in their zeal to tar Trump and his team?
Since Nunes disclosed Wednesday in two bombshell news conferences that intelligence on Trump and his transition team was collected incidentally, Democrats have taken aim at Nunes’ credibility.
For days, the Democrats and media began poking around Nunes’ actions, trying to find out who briefed Nunes. The Democrats and media made the fair guess that whoever briefed Nunes had to do so in a legal fashion — that is, they had to share the information via a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or a SCIF. If the White House briefed Nunes, it would harm Nunes’ claims.
But SCIFs are not common areas, even in Washington, D.C.
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There are some on White House grounds. Presumably, the White House considers the Oval Office a secure area for highly sensitive briefings. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building has some. Both the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council have separate SCIFs at the White House, according to CBS News.
But Congress has at least one too. Why didn’t Nunes go to a congressional SCIF? Perhaps not all SCIFs are equal.
A congressional source familiar with the situation told LifeZette that logistics and the need to meet an intelligence source likely convinced Nunes to go to the EEOB. Nunes’ defenders also note former House Intel chairmen Mike Rogers and Peter Hoesktra told reporters recently that they attended past briefings at White House SCIFs.
The complaints are aimed at taking focus off Nunes’ substance, the Hill source told LifeZette.
“We don’t have networked access to these kinds of reports in Congress,” Nunes told Eli Lake of Bloomberg on Monday. Nunes told Lake that his source was not a White House staffer and was an intelligence official.
Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, said on Monday that he did not know who in the executive branch allowed or asked Nunes to visit the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is on “White House grounds.”
Nunes said on Monday that it wasn’t unusual for congressmen with security clearances to visit various SCIFs around Washington, D.C., to receive classified briefings. The information has to be received in a legal fashion, said Nunes.
And while the CIA has SCIFs, the headquarters is outside of D.C., near McLean, Virginia.
Still, the disclosure that Nunes received information regarding a Trump investigation from the executive branch set Democrats off. One Democrat on the House Intel Committee said there must have been complex communications for Nunes to walk into a White House SCIF.
“It’s not an internet cafe. You can’t just walk in and receive classified information,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“This is done because the White House wanted it to be done,” Swalwell continued, before shooting over the top. “And this is what a cover-up to a crime looks like. We are watching it play out right now.”
A spokesman for Nunes did not immediately return a request for comment.
The complaining does not appear to have Republican leaders nervous.
When asked at a Tuesday morning news conference if Nunes should quit the committee, and if the source of the information was known to him, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had a simple reply:
“No, and no,” Ryan said.