Devin Nunes plot thickens as his spokesman concedes he met source for surveillance claim at White House

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), conceded Monday that the source for a dramatic statement he made last week about possible intelligence surveillance of members of President Trump’s transition team was someone he had met with at the White House.

The disclosure, showing coordination between the White House and Nunes, added to questions about whether the congressman could lead the intelligence panel in an impartial investigation of Russian involvement in the presidential election and possible links to Trump’s advisers. The panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), issued a statement Monday afternoon saying that Nunes should step aside from the investigation.

Nunes and his spokesman said he went to the White House to meet his source because there was a facility there for reviewing classified information. “Chairman Nunes met with his source at the White House grounds in order to have proximity to a secure location where he could view the information provided by the source,” the spokesman, Jack Langer, said.

A similar facility exists on Capitol Hill, however, which Nunes would routinely have access to.

Langer said the source of Nunes’ information was not a White House staff member. Any person entering the White House complex to meet with Nunes, however, would need to have been cleared by White House officials, who also control access to the secure facilities there.

Separately, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own inquiry into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia, said Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had agreed to answer the panel’s questions about his contacts with Russia.

“We expect him to be able to provide answers to key questions that have arisen in our inquiry,” Chairman Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark R. Warner, (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement.

“The timing of Mr. Kushner’s testimony is still being determined, but will only come after the committee determines that it has received any documents or information necessary to ensure that the meeting is productive for all sides,” the lawmakers said.

During the transition, Kushner was one of several Trump associates who met with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.

The New York Times reported that Kushner, at Kisylayk's request, also met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, a Moscow-based state-owned bank that was placed on a U.S. sanctions list after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Kushner had “volunteered to go in and sit down with” the committee members "based on the questions that surround this.”

Meeting with individuals from foreign governments was "part of his job," Spicer emphasized.

The disclosures involving Nunes added another twist to a bizarre series of events last week that roiled the House intelligence panel’s investigation:

On Monday, FBI Director James B. Comey testified before Nunes' committee that his investigators were looking at possible "coordination" during the presidential campaign between Russian officials and people close to Trump.

On Tuesday night, according to his latest statement, Nunes went to the White House, where someone showed him documents related to U.S. intelligence surveillance. The documents included references to some Trump transition officials, he later said.

On Wednesday, Nunes announced to reporters that he had seen evidence indicating that people close to Trump had been subjects of surveillance during the transition. He announced that he was going to the White House to brief Trump about the revelations and suggested that some of Trump’s aides might have been improperly subject to surveillance or had their names “unmasked” in intelligence reports.

Later that day, Trump said he felt partly vindicated by Nunes’ disclosure, saying that it backed up his previous claim that he had been “wiretapped” before the election by President Obama. Nunes, however, said that “never happened” and that the surveillance he referred to took place after the election and was legal.

On Thursday, Nunes apologized to committee members for not having shown the evidence to them before briefing the president.

And his spokesman conceded that Nunes did not know "for sure" that any Trump aides had actually been subject to surveillance, only that their names had appeared in intelligence reports, which could have resulted from other people talking about them.

Nunes’ evolving accounts appeared to raise at least two possible explanations that could cause political damage to him and the White House:

One possibility is that his statement was an authorized leak by the White House, aimed at shifting attention away from Trump’s wiretapping claim. Nunes has denied that the White House orchestrated his statements.

Another is that the information was an unplanned disclosure from someone with White House access that Nunes immediately disclosed to Trump, despite the fact that the president and his aides are subjects of the Intelligence Committee’s investigation.

In addition to Schiff, several Democrats said Nunes should be disqualified from heading an inquiry into whether Trump's aides had improper contacts with Russia, though there is no sign that House leaders are considering replacing him.

“The chairman can no longer continue in that position,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a CNN interview. Getting documents at the White House raised “very serious questions” about Nunes’ independence, Cardin said. Senate Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York also called for Nunes to be replaced.

In a CNN interview, asked why he needed to go to the White House rather than use the secure intelligence facility at the Capitol, Nunes said, “Congress has not been given this information, these documents.” His spokesman, Langer, said in an email that “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," he said.

Another unresolved question is, who were the targets of the surveillance? Nunes said he believed the Trump aides mentioned in the intelligence reports he saw were there because they had contacts with people covered by foreign intelligence surveillance. U.S. intelligence conducts surveillance on citizens of a large number of foreign countries. Nunes has not said which countries were involved in this case except that it was not Russia.

Another question is whether any Trump aides actually had their names improperly unmasked in the documents Nunes referred to.

Langer said that Nunes is “extremely concerned by the possible improper unmasking of names of U.S. citizens.” But in his CNN interview, asked about the people referred to in the report, Nunes said “it was pretty clear who they were talking about,” but “for the most part they were masked.”

Schiff noted that he has not seen the documents Nunes claims to have seen. After Nunes apologized to members of his committee Thursday and promised to “thoroughly investigate” the surveillance, several lawmakers said Nunes had promised to provide them the surveillance information he had received. That has not occurred yet.

Last week, Spicer had dismissed speculation that the White House had supplied Nunes with the information, saying that the suggestion did not pass the "smell test." He added, however, that he did not know for sure what Nunes had told Trump or where his information came from.

The committee has asked the National Security Agency, which intercepts overseas communications and assists the FBI in domestic surveillance, to provide a complete list of intelligence reports containing Trump associates’ names or other identifying information.

david.cloud@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

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UPDATES:

4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Rep. Adam Schiff and a quote from a CNN interview with Rep. Devin Nunes.

The article was originally published at 3:30 p.m.

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