WASHINGTON — Communications of Donald Trump's transition officials — possibly including the incoming president himself — may have been scooped up in legal surveillance but then improperly distributed throughout the intelligence community, the chairman of the House intelligence committee said Wednesday.
In an extraordinary set of statements to reporters, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes said the intercepted communications do not appear to be related to the ongoing FBI investigation into Trump associates' contacts with Russia or any criminal warrants.
Nunes, who served on Trump's transition team, said he believes the intelligence collections were done legally but that identities of Trump officials and the content of their communications may have been inappropriately disseminated in intelligence reports.
"What I've read bothers me, and I think it should bother the president himself and his team," Nunes said Wednesday after briefing Trump privately at the White House.
Nunes briefed reporters before sharing the information with Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. Schiff decried Nunes' handling of the matter, saying the chairman had created "profound doubt" about the credibility of their committee's investigation.
The disclosures came two days after FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed the investigation into the Trump campaign's connections with Russia and rejected Trump's explosive claims that President Barack Obama wiretapped his New York skyscraper during the election. Comey's comments came in the House intelligence committee's first public hearing on Russia's election interference, an investigation being overseen by Nunes.
Nunes said the new information did not change his assessment that the wiretapping allegations were false. Still, the president said he felt "somewhat" vindicated by the Republican's revelations.
"I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found," Trump said.
It was unclear whether Trump's own communications were monitored. Nunes initially said "yes" when asked if Trump was among those swept up in the intelligence monitoring, but then said it was only "possible" that the president's communications were picked up.
Nunes said the information on the Trump team was collected in November, December and January, the period after the election when Trump was holding calls with foreign leaders, interviewing potential Cabinet secretaries and beginning to sketch out administration policy. Nunes said the monitored material was "widely disseminated" in intelligence reports.
Asked whether he believed the transition team had been spied on, Nunes said: "It all depends on one's definition of spying."
U.S. intelligence agencies routinely monitor the communications of foreign officials. That surveillance sometimes includes the names of Americans that the foreigner is speaking to or about. When this happens, intelligence analysts are obliged to hide or "minimize" the name of the American, unless knowing that name is necessary to understanding the foreign intelligence described in the report.
Nunes said the names of Trump associates were "unmasked" after the incidental collection, though he did not identify those names. They are believed to include Michael Flynn, who was fired as White House national security adviser after misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States.
Schiff disputed that there was improper "unmasking." He said that after speaking with Nunes, it appeared that the names of Americans were still guarded in the intercepts, but their identities could be gleaned from the materials.
Nunes would not say how he had received the new information.