On Wednesday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the White House would no longer comment on ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russian officials, referring all questions to Trump’s outside attorney.
But Thursday morning, Trump was back at it, once again telling his 31 million Twitter followers that the real story is the Obama administration’s “unmasking and surveillance.”
The big story is the "unmasking and surveillance" of people that took place during the Obama Administration.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2017
Trump’s tweet comes the morning after House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) issued three subpoenas — one each to the FBI, CIA, and NSA — each referencing “unmasking.” The subpoenas are part of a batch of seven issued Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee. The other four pertain to possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Fox News reported that Nunes’ subpoenas signal the House Intelligence Committee “is intensifying its investigation into allegations that Obama-era aides improperly demanded the ‘unmasking’ of names of associates of President Trump that had appeared, in coded form, in classified intelligence reports, then leaked the data to news media organizations.”
But these allegations have already been thoroughly debunked. In April, numerous media outlets, citing both Republican and Democratic congressional sources, reported that intelligence reports pertaining to the communications of Trump’s advisers with foreign agents were “normal and appropriate” and contained “no evidence of wrongdoing.” That didn’t stop Trump, however — in a subsequent interview, he continued to claim, without evidence, that what the Obama administration did was “horrible.”
Reuters reported that news of Nunes’ subpoenas to intelligence agencies ignited a “political feud… with charges that the panel’s Republican chairman subpoenaed the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency without telling Democratic members.”
“Several U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that all such requests by Obama administration officials were properly scrutinized and appropriate,” Reuters adds.
The House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ignored the intelligence agency subpoenas in a press release.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 31, 2017
Trump has been trying to manufacture a scandal surrounding the Obama administration’s “unmasking,” or revealing identities of U.S. citizens in intelligence reports, since early March, when he went on a tweetstorm recklessly accusing Obama of wiretapping him.
I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
Later that month, Nunes said he had knowledge of intelligence reports that he suggested might validate Trump’s accusation. During an interview with the New York Times weeks later, Trump went as far as to accuse former National Security Adviser Susan Rice of criminal acts related to unmasking, claiming the Obama administration’s surveillance practices are “one of the big stories of our time.”
But neither Nunes or Trump ever produced any evidence of anything, and their accusations were debunked by congressional sources on both sides of the aisle. With their story in shambles, the fact Nunes and the White House had clearly colluded in an attempt to manufacture a scandal led Nunes to announce he was “temporarily” stepping aside from the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation. But last month, CNN reported that Nunes was “continuing to review intelligence relating to Russia, a move that has Democrats grumbling that he has violated the spirit of his recusal.”
“Unmasking” is one of a number of sideshows Republicans have used to distract from investigations into possible ties between Trump and the Russian government. During a Senate hearing last month featuring former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) focused on “unmasking,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) grilled Yates about her decision not to enforce Trump’s Muslim ban, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) spent time asking Clapper about Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Nunes, for his part, isn’t talking publicly. Asked recently why he was still reviewing Russian intelligence despite his promise to step aside, he said, “I don’t talk about intelligence.” The approach stands in dramatic contrast to how Nunes handled himself less than two months ago, when he held numerous news conferences on the same day to conspiracy -monger about Obama’s surveillance of Trump .
UPDATE: During a CNN interview on Thursday, Schiff said Nunes didn’t consult with Democrats before issuing subpoenas to the intelligence community — subpoenas he views as unnecessary.
“Susan Rice has been a perennial target for the GOP, for whatever reason, but again, we have very little insight into what the chairman is doing here, and I think the only guidance we can get is [what] we hear coming out of the White House,” Schiff said. “This is what the White House wants to see happen. They’d rather be talking about these issues.”
Schiff added that the intelligence agencies have been cooperating with the House investigation, so there’s no apparent reason for Nunes to issue subpoenas — unless he’s abetting the White House’s effort to distract from the Russia investigation.