It started with a string of Saturday morning tweets. From his weekend retreat in Florida, President Trump lashed out at his predecessor, Barack Obama, accusing him of wiretapping Trump Tower during the presidential campaign.
It ignited a chain of events that veered between tragedy and farce. U.S. intelligence agencies, former Obama administration officials, America’s closest foreign ally and one of Trump’s most ardent congressional supporters would be swept up in the drama. And there are no signs it’s over.
Saturday, March 4:
Trump tweets and repeats claim that Obama wiretapped his phones
In the early hours of March 4, the president went on Twitter.
By various accounts, his mood was sour.
It was just two days after news reports revealed that Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions had twicemet with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign. The disclosure was embarrassing, to say the least, since Sessions had testified at his Senate confirmation hearing that he had not met with any Russian officials. Bowing to an outcry on Capitol Hill, Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department investigation into Russian interference in the election.
The president was peeved that the Sessions news had eclipsed his well-received address to a joint session of Congress a few days earlier.
A disgruntled Trump on Twitter: an explosive combination. In four tweets just minutes apart, he alternated between denying any collusion with Russia and accusing President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower during the campaign.
Then Trump took a break from social media to get in some golf. He seemed relaxed while greeting supporters outside his Mar-a-Lago resort. But his tweets had unleashed a whirlwind.
Politicians from both parties called on Trump to explain his accusation — or retract it. FBI Director James B. Comey pressed his bosses at the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s claims. They did not. Trump, meanwhile, asked the House and Senate intelligence committees — both busy investigating the possible Russian connection to his campaign — to look into his wiretapping claim too.
“This is McCarthyism,” Trump tweeted. Then he invoked the scandal that brought down President Nixon.
Kellyanne Conway defends Trump, says microwaves could be watching you
Pressed to produce proof for Trump’s accusation, his aides struggled to explain what he meant. Their statements offered little clarity. Asked whether she believed Trump Tower had been bugged, Kellyanne Conway, the president’s senior counselor, riffed on the vast reach of surveillance. The government, she said, can spy on citizens through their phones and televisions. Not even kitchens are secure, she suggested. There are microwave ovens “that turn into cameras.”
The House and Senate intelligence committees had asked the Justice Department to produce any information it had to support Trump’s allegation — by March 13. When the deadline came, the department said it needed more time.
At this point, the story could have quietly faded away. Instead, it took another stranger-than-fiction twist.
Nunes thinks Trump is wrong
“I don't think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower,” the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, told reporters. “Clearly the president was wrong.”
The Tulare Republican went on to say that it was possible the president and his associates were “swept up” in a broader surveillance.
More on that later.
Britain a frenemy?
The White House tried to defend the president by blaming … Britain.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer said reporters looking for evidence to support the wiretapping claim should check out a report by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey judge. Napolitano said three sources told him that Obama had dodged U.S. restrictions on surveillance by having Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) spy on Trump. The British intelligence agency called the allegation “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.”
Trump tried to distance himself from the commotion the next day — but without apologizing to the Brits.
“All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television,” he said. “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”
Napolitano’s colleague, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, disavowed the report, saying the network had no evidence to back it up. Napolitano then disappeared from the Fox lineup for a time. It didn’t help his credibility when Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer turned conspiracy theorist, said that he was one of Napolitano’s sources — and that the former judge mischaracterized what he told him.
Comey confirms the FBI is investigating possible connection between Trump campaign and Russia
The start of House Intelligence Committee hearings put Russia back in the spotlight. On the same day that Trump dismissed the issue as “fake news,” Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers testified for more than five hours. With TV cameras rolling, the FBI director confirmed that his agency was investigating Russian interference in the election, including possible collusion by the Trump campaign, and both he and Rogers said they knew of no evidence to support Trump’s allegation that Obama had wiretapped him.
Nunes, dropping a bombshell, says U.S. intel picked up communications of Trump transition team
Comey’s testimony had put another dent in Trump’s credibility. He had essentially called the president a liar, and Democratic politicians and liberal commentators were making the most of it.
To make matters worse, news surfaced that onetime Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort had worked for a Russian billionaire to advance Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda.
Then along came something to change the narrative – courtesy of Nunes.
The House Intelligence Committee chairman held an impromptu news conference to make an explosive allegation: U.S. intelligence officials, he said, had intercepted communications involving Trump’s transition team. He had seen the evidence with own eyes, he said, and the intercepted communications had “nothing to do with Russia.”
Nunes, who had worked on Trump’s transition team, said he was “alarmed” by what he’d seen — and felt compelled to go to the White House and tell Trump about it in person. “The president needs to know these intelligence reports are out there,” he said.
Nunes hurried from the Capitol to the White House to brief the president, then held another news conference about the briefing.
Trump said later he felt “somewhat” vindicated.
But Nunes hadn’t told the whole story.
Nunes backtracks, and apologizes
With reporters scrutinizing his White House visit and Democrats sharply questioning its propriety, Nunes began to change his story. He said he had learned about surveillance summaries, but had not seen any, and that it was possible that no Trump aides had been the subjects of surveillance. Their names could have appeared in intelligence reports simply because foreign figures under surveillance were talking about them. What’s more, he apologized for going public with sensitive information before sharing it with his own committee.
Then the story took another turn. Or rather, a car ride.
A nighttime White House meeting
On March 21, the night before he dropped his bombshell, it turned out that Nunes had been riding in an Uber with a congressional staffer when he received a message. Nunes had abruptly gotten out of the car and headed for an unknown destination. Rep. Adam B. Schiff, Nunes’ fellow Californian and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called it a “midnight run.” News leaks suggested that Nunes had visited the White House to obtain the “alarming” information on which he briefed the White House the following day.
The source could not simply put the documents in a backpack and walk them over to the House Intelligence Committee space.
— Nunes spokesman Jack Langer
Russia hearings are canceled indefinitely
Nunes abruptly canceled a public hearing, scheduled for March 28, at which former acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates, former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan were to testify before the House Intelligence Committee.
Nunes said he wanted to give Comey and Rogers time to address the committee in private first. Schiff sensed a different motive.
He said it looked like Nunes had postponed the hearing to protect the White House.
“We don’t welcome cutting off public access to information,” Schiff said. “I think that there must have been a very strong pushback from the White House.”
Three days later, Schiff called on Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Details emerge on Nunes’ White House meeting
Nunes spokesman Jack Langer confirmed that the congressman had gone to the White House complex the night before he briefed Trump. Nunes had rushed there to meet with a source. Langer didn’t say whom.
“The information comprised executive branch documents that have not been provided to Congress,” he said by email. “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.”
Any thought that this explanation would put matters to rest was mistaken.
The scoop came from inside the White House
The New York Times reported that Nunes’ sources for the intelligence reports were two White House officials – Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer in the White House counsel's office.
At his daily news briefing, Spicer would neither confirm nor deny the report.
Later that day, the White House sent a letter to ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, inviting them to view newly discovered classified materials. To Democrats, it looked like an effort to quiet the controversy over Nunes’ conduct by letting both committees see what Nunes had already seen.
“Why all the cloak-and-dagger stuff?” asked Schiff.
Trump shifts blame to Susan Rice after ‘Pizzagate’ theorist’s report
Going on Twitter once again, Trump trumpeted reports he had heard on Fox News.
Trump’s transition team members had been spied on, and a senior Obama administration official had tried to “unmask” their identities, Fox reported. The network suggested the attempted unmasking was improper, an abuse of authority for political purposes.
Unmasking itself is legal and not uncommon within the intelligence community. An official with the appropriate security clearance can ask to know the identity of an anonymous person mentioned in an intelligence report — when it’s necessary to understand the information in the report. It’s not the same as making the person’s name public.
The latest villain in this saga? Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice. She had previously pushed back against Trump’s wiretap claims, saying that “nothing of the sort had occurred.” Now, Trump and the conservative media were accusing her of “unmasking” people improperly.
The allegations were first reported by Mike Cernovich, a conspiracy theorist, blogger and self-described “American nationalist.” Cernovich had been an ardent backer of the “Pizzagate” theory – an online hoax that tied Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to a child-trafficking ring supposedly operating from a Washington, D.C., pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.
After Cernovich’s report on Rice and her alleged unmasking of innocents, Donald Trump Jr. chimed in to say the blogger deserved a Pulitzer Prize. Trump Jr. was not Cernovich’s only admirer in the White House. A day earlier, Conway had tweeted out a link to a “60 Minutes” interview with Cernovich.
The counter-narrative continues
In an interview with MSNBC, Rice denied the allegations. She said she never unmasked anyone for political reasons and never leaked the name of anyone who had been unmasked — nor had she ever leaked any classified information, period.
But Trump wasn’t letting up.
In an interview with the New York Times, the president said Rice might be guilty of a crime, without citing any evidence. He couldn’t understand why the mainstream media weren’t all over it.
“The Russia story is a total hoax,” he said. “There has been absolutely nothing coming out of that.”
Nunes steps aside
The House Intelligence Committee chairman stunned Washington with the announcement that he was stepping aside from the Russia investigation – because he himself was under investigation. The House Ethics Committee, in a separate announcement, said it was looking into allegations that Nunes had improperly disclosed classified material — the same material involved in his nighttime White House meeting.
With Nunes sidelined, Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) will lead the intelligence committee’s Russia inquiry, with help from Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.).
Conaway made headlines in January when he suggested that Russian interference in the 2016 election wasn’t such a big deal, given that Mexican celebrities had appeared in Nevada to help get out the Latino vote for Democratic candidates.
“Those are foreign actors, foreign people, influencing the vote in Nevada,” Conaway told the Dallas Morning News. “You don’t hear the Democrats screaming and saying one word about that.”
Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today to support Los Angeles Times journalism like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.