Unanswered Questions About Trump Team Surveillance Pile Up

There are two related but separate issues regarding House Intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes’s revelation last week that identifying information about associates of the Trump campaign and transition team was collected by and distributed within the intelligence committee.

The first is the substance of Nunes’s claim, and on that there remain a bevy of unanswered questions. Is it true that these Trump associates improperly unmasked? What was the nature of the communications wherein the Trump-related information was connected: in foreign-to-foreign contact, or between foreign entities and a U.S. citizen? Was the intelligence on Team Trump truly incidental, as Nunes has said, or was the campaign and transition a target, as he has repeatedly implied? If Trump was targeted, why? Was the intelligence critical for national security, or was it not? Was there a directive to find and/or exploit the intelligence about the Trump associates, and if so, where did the order come from? Was it from a political entity, i.e. the Obama White House?

Until the intelligence Nunes has seen is declassified or Congress fully investigates the claims, we can’t know the answers to these questions. The answers, however, could prove the story to be anything—from a nothingburger to a government scandal of epic proportions. Trump opponents are wrong to dismiss Nunes’s nose for failures and scandals within the intelligence community.

But that leads to the second issue, the more problematic one for the Trump White House: the process by which Nunes has been seeking and presenting his findings.

The Process Is Important

His late-night trip to the White House on March 21 is emblematic of the problems with Nunes’s one-man investigation. The visit is a remarkable event: The chairman of the House Intelligence committee, who has the ability to view and request secure documents on Capitol Hill, meets a source at the White House in order to view intelligence reports.

Nunes has claimed he did this because the documents were only accessible on the executive branch’s intelligence network and not readily accessible to members of Congress. Even for the chairman of the House committee conducting oversight on intelligence—or especially for that person—it’s an extraordinary meeting of two branches of government. As such, there’d be some expected protocol for an intelligence officer working in the White House to meet with a congressman. There’d be a procedure for clearing that congressman to see the intelligence reports, which would alert higher-ups either in the home intelligence agency or in the White House (or both).

The White House remains non-responsive to questions about what it knows about Nunes’s clearance. Asked if he knew more about the circumstances of Nunes’s March 21 visit at Tuesday’s briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said that “there is an obsession on the process” that he called “reckless.” What the press should focus on, Spicer offered, is not how Nunes learned this information but the substance of it.

That’s a good bit of spin, but how Nunes learned or confirmed his findings—from at least one source inside the White House—is now necessarily part of the substance, and relevant for maintaining a healthy separation of powers. If Nunes’s interaction with his source was, as Spicer asserted on Tuesday, “100 percent legal and appropriate and cleared,” it would be nice for the White House to offer evidence or an explanation. Otherwise, it’s both possible and plausible that someone in the White House was aware of the existence of these documents before Nunes went public with what he saw.

Nunes remains quiet on who specifically his source or sources are.

Trump Quote of the Day

Via the Wall Street Journal: “I know that we are all going to make a deal on health care,” Mr. Trump said. “That’s such an easy one.”

The NSC Adds a Russia Critic

The Washington Post reports that Vladimir Putin critic Fiona Hill will be taking on the role of senior director for Europe and Russia at the White House’s National Security Council. Here’s more:

Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former member of the National Intelligence Council, was first recruited for the NSC job under Michael Flynn, President Trump’s now-former national security adviser….

In her book “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” published with co-author Clifford Gaddy in 2013 and updated in 2015, Hill described Putin as a survivalist on foreign policy, willing to use “forms of blackmail, intimidation, punishment, and blatant distortion of the truth” to defend Russia and his position.

Quoted in a November article in the Atlantic, Hill expressed doubts about Trump’s plans to “normalize relations” with Russia. While Trump’s presidency might bring “a stylistic rhetorical change” in the relationship, she said, “I think it will come down to what it’s always been — where the Russians will get all giddy with expectations, and then they’ll be dashed, like, five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time . . . being on the same page.”

“We’re going to have an awful lot of friction,” Hill said. “And Trump isn’t exactly the most diplomatic of people. So I imagine he’ll fall out with his new friend Vladi­mir pretty quickly.”

Song of the Day

“Coming Home,” Leon Bridges.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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