On Thursday, The New York Times broke the news that two White House officials supplied House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) with mechanisms for attaining the classified intelligence information about which he spoke last week. According to the Times report:
Several current American officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and formerly worked on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee.
Cohen-Watnick worked for ousted former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, who was the target of intelligence leaks; after Flynn was fired, Trump refused to get rid of Cohen-Watnick, reportedly on the advice of Steve Bannon. Ellis worked for Nunes. It now appears that a former Flynn staffer, angered over leaks, worked with a former staffer for Nunes to supply Nunes with information with which to go public. Nunes’ response to the report came from director of communications Jack Langer: “As he’s stated many times, Chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source’s identity, and he will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources.”
Nunes stated on March 22 that the intelligence community had incidentally monitored members of the Trump transition team, and that members of the Trump staff had been unmasked inappropriately. That report drew quick fire from Democrats who pointed out that Nunes was a member of Trump’s transition team; that on March 21, Nunes visited the White House grounds to review intelligence information; that immediately after his press conference, Nunes headed to the White House to brief Trump personally on the intelligence reports; and that Nunes has refused to state whether he obtained the information from members of the White House staff. Nunes explained on Hannity last week, “I felt like I had a duty and obligation to tell him, because, as you know, he’s taking a lot of heat in the news media.”
Nunes repeatedly said that his source was not a White House staffer, but was a “whistle-blower type” according to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. He may have been telling the truth about this source, assuming that Ellis and Cohen-Watnick merely supplied him contact with the source. But all of this doesn’t look squeaky clean.
This leaves several unanswered questions.
Did Team Trump supply Nunes with information so as to use the House Intelligence Committee as a sort of propaganda outfit? If not, why didn’t Ellis and Cohen-Watnick go to Trump directly, rather than funneling the information through Nunes?
In the end, this all makes Nunes look like a tool of the White House – even if the information he’s uncovering is valuable and the activity it exposes criminal. And it doesn’t help when Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) tells MSNBC that Nunes’ meetings with White House officials without informing his colleagues was peachy-keen, because “He works for the president. He answers to the president.”
Except he doesn’t. Nunes is an elected representative. The legislature does not work for the president.
Unless he does. In which case, we’ve got a serious conflict of interest, and real questions about whether Nunes should step down.