At least two White House officials played a role in surfacing the classified documents that were viewed by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, ABC News has confirmed.
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Nunes, R-California, later described that information as potential evidence of improper surveillance by United States spy agencies working under the Obama administration.
On Friday, the intelligence committee's ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, visited the White House to view what Schiff described as "precisely the same materials" that Nunes viewed. Schiff did not provide details about what was contained in the documents but said he saw no reason the committee shouldn't have been consulted before Nunes went public.
"Nothing I could see today warranted a departure from the normal review procedures, and these materials should now be provided to the full membership of both committees," said Schiff in a statement. "The White House has yet to explain why senior White House staff apparently shared these materials with but one member of either committee, only for their contents to be briefed back to the White House."
A day after having a meeting with a source on White House grounds, Nunes briefed President Trump on his concerns and held a press conference in which he indicated that members of the Trump transition team, and possibly the president, were incidentally surveilled.
Trump, who claimed that President Obama had his "wires tapped" at Trump Tower, said he felt "somewhat" vindicated after speaking to Nunes. A senior White House official said that Trump spoke with Schiff for 10 minutes after the Democrat viewed the materials for a couple hours Friday, describing their meeting as "very cordial and polite." The president told Schiff that he wanted to be helpful to the committee's investigation.
Two U.S. officials say senior National Security Council staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick and NSC lawyer Michael Ellis were both involved in the matter. According to one official familiar with the situation, Cohen-Watnick discovered the documents during the course of a separate intelligence review of unmasking procedures, a process by which names that are normally concealed in the course of surveillance are revealed to the intelligence community when they are believed to be critical to understanding the value of intelligence.
After reading them, Cohen-Watnick decided to alert Ellis, the official said. It was unclear what Ellis did with the information after that.
Ellis declined to speak when approached by reporters today outside his home.
It is unclear how Cohen-Watnick came across the documents and whether he found them on his own or whether they came from an outside intelligence agency. One U.S. official also emphasized that Cohen-Watnick did not directly brief Nunes and was unaware that Nunes would eventually be briefed on the documents.
The official added that Cohen-Watnick was not responsible for clearing Nunes onto the White House grounds. At this point it’s unclear who eventually took Nunes onto the grounds and showed him the documents.
Today, White House press secretary Sean Spicer continued to deflect questions regarding Chairman Nunes' handling of classified information, but did defend his visit to the White House to view classified documents as "routine and proper."
"It's not in our interest to talk about the process, what occurred between Chairman Nunes and coming here was both routine and proper," Spicer said. "I know a lot of folks want to talk about the process and not the surveillance and the underlying issue. The substance, the unmasking and leaks, is what we should all be concerned about."
According to Spicer, Nunes was summoned to the White House by an "individual" and was not hiding or roaming secretly on the grounds.
"He was asked to come over here by an individual," Spicer said. "He came over, which happens daily. He was asked to go somewhere. He went there. He's cleared. What he did, what he saw and who he met with is 100 percent proper."
Nunes has faced criticism over the course of the investigation for his relationship with the Trump administration. Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, including the House Intelligence Committee's Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., have called for Nunes to recuse himself from the inquiry.
But on Friday, during an interview with ABC affiliate KFSN in Fresno, California, Nunes was asked if he will recuse himself, to which he reiterated, "No I'm not."
He added, "There is no better person in the House of Representatives to do this investigation than me because I've been the one who's been warning about Russia for a long time."