WASHINGTON — Communications by President Donald Trump’s transition team — and possibly the president-elect himself — had been picked up “incidentally” as part of routine surveillance of foreign officials, the House Intelligence chairman disclosed Wednesday.
Though Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said the monitoring was likely legal and was not wiretapping by former President Barack Obama, as Trump had alleged, the White House seized on what Press Secretary Sean Spicer called a “startling revelation.”
Trump said he felt “somewhat” vindicated. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found,” he said after Nunes briefed him at the White House.
Nunes’ announcement angered the intelligence committee’s top Democrat, who said the group had been left in the dark.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) condemned Nunes for rushing to the president with the information and said the chairman “cast quite a profound cloud over our ability to do our work.”
Nunes said the surveillance — revealed to him by an unnamed source — was unrelated to an ongoing investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
“I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show the president and his team were at least monitored and sent out in intelligence reporting channels,” he said at a Capitol Hill news conference, adding later at the White House, “I think the president is concerned and he should be.”
Nunes also had said that some Trump associates were “unmasked,” or identified, in reports that were disseminated through intelligence channels. Under the federal law, the names of U.S. persons whose conversations are incidentally picked up in foreign surveillance are not to be identified.
Schiff accused the White House of trying to deflect from testimony earlier this week by FBI Director James Comey that the bureau’s probe into Russian meddling included a look at potential ties to and collaboration with Trump’s team.
Schiff called for an independent commission to probe the Kremlin’s role in the election.
The Democratic National Committee noted that Nunes was a Trump transition member and called his announcement a “protection racket for Donald Trump and his fragile ego.”
Nunes said he hoped that by Friday the National Security Agency, CIA and FBI will comply with the committee request in a March 15 letter and provide information on all U.S. persons whose conversations were incidentally collected and whose identities were revealed.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a House Intelligence member, said in an interview, “To me this is pretty significant. I don’t know where this is going to lead.”
He said he met with Nunes on Wednesday morning to discuss the new reports, which King said were turned over to Nunes legally. But neither King nor Nunes would say who gave the information to them.
“What we’re looking for is why were these names unmasked, and who all were they distributed to,” King said.
Also Wednesday, Spicer sought to minimize the role of Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman, in the president’s election. Earlier, The Associated Press reported that Manafort a decade ago signed a $10 million contract to help advance the interests of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Manafort was brought on to oversee “delegate operations,” Spicer said. “He was involved in the campaign for a total of just under five months.”