Moveon.org Tuesday filed an ethics complaint with the House Office of Congressional Ethics against Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for violating the Espionage Act “by disclosing classified information without the authorization required by House rules or any other proper authorization.”
The complaint stems from what MoveOn – and others – see as Nunes, who was a key member of the Trump transition team, prioritizing his loyalty to the president over his committee’s independent investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, including potential collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
Nunes caused a ruckus – and called into account the integrity of the investigation under his leadership – by claiming, in two separate press conferences on the same day, to have obtained information unrelated to the Russian probe from an undisclosed source, which he first shared with House speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and then Trump but not members of his own committee.
The New York Times has since reported Thursday that the information received by Nunes came from from two White House officials — Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who is the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council (NSC), and lawyer Michael Ellis, who’s in the White House Counsel’s Office and House Intelligence Committee staffer.
Citing anonymous sources, the Times said that after Trump tweeted out accusations that Obama had him surveilled Cohen-Watnick pored over highly classified reports on communications collected during surveillance of foreign officials.
The information he reviewed, Nunes maintained, added credence to Trump’s claims, tweeted without supporting evidence, that former President Obama “wiretapped” Trump Tower, by revealing that a Justice Department investigation of foreign nationals had resulted in the incidental collection of information on members of Trump’s transition team.
“Devin Nunes’ reckless and clearly partisan actions prove he lacks the judgment and independence to oversee an investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump and his associates with the government of Russia—and underscore why an independent commission and special prosecutor are so desperately needed,” MoveOn.org Campaign Director Jo Comerford said in a statement. “Congress must stop all business and focus on the creation of an independent commission and the appointment of a special prosecutor or the American people will never be able to trust that the Trump campaign did not in engage illegal collusion with a foreign government to sabotage a U.S. election.”
Nunes Tuesday had refused to recuse himself from that committee’s investigation of Russian meddling, even after reports suggested that he had nixed testimony from former Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates once the White House allegedly balked at her proposed testimony.
Yates, who was fired by Donald Trump January 30 after refusing to enforce his original immigration ban, had alerted the White House to duplicitous statements made by dismissed former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn regarding his ties with Russia. Flynn was dismissed in February, ostensibly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his Russian connections.
The former acting attorney general had agreed to testify before the House committee – pledging not to reveal any classified information – and her attorney, David O’Neil, sought the go-ahead from the Justice Department. Justice directed him to seek permission from the White House, citing executive and deliberative privilege, according to a series of letters between O’Neil, the committee, the Justice Department and the White House published by the Washington Post.
“Ms. Yates seeks authorization to testify about communications she and a senior Department official had with the Office of the Counsel to the President,” Scott Schools, associate deputy attorney general at Justice, responded. “Such communications are likely covered by the president communications privilege and possibly the deliberative process privilege.”
Yates and her attorney have argued, however, that people details of the meeting already had been discussed publicly so privilege didn’t any longer apply. In a subsequent letter to the White House, O’Neil noted that the committee would be asking Yates about “January 2017 communications regarding concerns about the conduct of a senior White House official.”
A rough timeline of the events suggests that Yates informed the White House in early January that Flynn may have been compromised but it wasn’t until three weeks later that he was let go for lying to Pence, prompting speculation that he was fired because the information was about to be made public.
Shortly after O’Neil’s correspondence to the White House, which also said if he didn’t hear back he “would conclude that that the White House does not assert executive privilege over these matters,” Nunes canceled both the public and classified hearings.
“Now we know why Chairman Nunes canceled the hearing today. This isn’t an investigation into Donald Trump‘s ties to Russia — it’s a cover-up,” Democratic National Committee (DNC) aide Zac Petkanas said in a statement cited by The Hill.
But White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters during a daily briefing that “the White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying and the Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible.”
By most accounts the White House has been scrambling for purchase after FBI Director James Comey broke protocol and told the House Intelligence Committee that the bureau is investigating Russia’s interference in the presidential election and any ties to Donald Trump’s campaigns.
The hearing, which featured testimony from both Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers was like a mashup of too different hearings – with Democrats focusing on Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and possible collusion between Trump administration people and the nation-state and Republicans, particularly Nunes, probing how information and other interactions were leaked to the press and to the public as well as the process for masking and unmasking U.S. persons caught up in an investigation.
It was just days after that hearing that Nunes raised eyebrows by revealing his tete-a-tete with the then unnamed source.
Since then it has been learned that Nunes made a late night trip to the White House to review classified information in a secure location but the details – who he met and what he saw – remained, to the chagrin of his fellow committee members, shrouded in secrecy until the Times revelations.
Indicating that he smelled a cover-up, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the White House “is not an internet café, you can’t just walk in and receive classification.”
The Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, has called for Nunes to recuse himself as have other lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The Senate Intelligence Committee promised its own probe into Trump’s possible ties with Russia, which begins Thursday, will remain independent. “This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads,” Chairman Sen. Richard Burr told reporters, the New York Times said.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include revelations by the New York Times that the intelligence received by Nunes apparently came from two White House officials.