The head of the House Intelligence Committee secretly went to the White House grounds to meet with a source, before he surprised his colleagues by briefing the president — and the press — on information they hadn't seen.
The revelation, first reported by CNN and later confirmed by a spokesman for the chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, is the latest twist in the strange saga of Nunes' unorthodox actions last week.
You'll remember that President Trump has claimed, without evidence, that his campaign was illegally surveilled by the Obama administration. The claim has been denounced at the highest levels of the intelligence community. But the explosive allegation has come up several times as the committee attempts to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. election, and the handling of classified information in connection to that story.
Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, raised eyebrows on Wednesday when he gave a press conference to say President Trump and his transition team were accidentally caught up in routine U.S. surveillance of foreign targets.
Nunes himself said there was no sign the Trump team was targeted specifically, and that the surveillance appeared to be wholly legal. The conversations in question also happened after the election and, as observers have noted, could include remarks about Trump and his team. Still, Trump claimed the press conference as partial vindication.
Nunes said his announcement was based on classified intelligence from an unnamed source and that he had briefed the president. Notably, no one else had seen the information — including the other members of the House Intelligence Committee. The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), called that "bizarre" and "wrong." (Nunes later apologized to his colleagues.)
The briefing raised a number of questions. One big one: Where did that intelligence come from?
"Democrats were skeptical, and immediately questioned whether Nunes had obtained his information from the White House itself," NPR's Scott Detrow reports. "Now, a Nunes spokesman says the Republican did meet with his source on the White House grounds."
The spokesman says that the location was chosen for its "proximity to a secure location." There are, of course, other secure locations available on Capitol Hill.
The Trump administration has denied that it provided the information to Nunes. On Thursday White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that idea didn't pass the "smell test," asking why Nunes would brief the president on information if it came from the president's team.
At a press conference on Monday, Spicer said he didn't know what Nunes saw or what he said to Trump.
He referred questions about the origin of the information to Nunes, but when pressed on whether it might have come from a White House staffer, Spicer said "anything's possible."
The administration has delivered some harsh rhetoric over earlier leaks of information, but Spicer didn't express concern that there might be a leak from inside the administration. Instead, he noted that Nunes was cleared to view classified material — drawing a contrast between leaks to reporters and the passing of any information to Nunes.
Here's more on what we know about Nunes' meeting, from The Associated Press:
"Nunes' office said the information provided to the chairman came from 'executive branch documents that have not been provided to Congress.'
" 'Because of classification rules, the source could not simply put the documents in a backpack and walk them over to the House Intelligence Committee space,' Langer said. 'The White House grounds was the best location to safeguard the proper chain of custody and classification of these documents, so the chairman could view them in a legal way.' "
Nunes has not identified his source. Any White House staffer can approve a visitor to the White House grounds, the AP notes.
Nunes' spokesman did not specify when he visited White House property.
Last week the Daily Beast reported, citing anonymous sources, that Nunes "jumped out out of an Uber" on Tuesday evening after receiving a message on his phone, and didn't tell his staffers where he went. The press conference was held on Wednesday.
CNN has since reported a similar account of Nunes abruptly leaving a staffer on Tuesday night. On Friday, ranking member Rep. Schiff appeared to allude to the incident as a mysterious "dead of night excursion."
Schiff has been sharply critical of Nunes' recent decisions, including holding Wednesday's press conference and cancelling a public hearing this Tuesday. Schiff is one of several voices on Capitol Hill calling for an independent investigation of Russian intrusion in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Meanwhile, the Senate's investigation is moving forward. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner will be talking to the Senate committee, and the committee will hold its first open hearing on Thursday.