Column: Is the Trump White House in cover-up mode?
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Press secretary Sean Spicer was over twenty minutes late for Thursday’s White House press briefing.
This wasn’t exactly unusual; Spicer is known for being fifteen or so minutes late to his briefings, but Thursday was slightly different. Only minutes before Spicer was to take his usual place behind the lectern, The New York Times reported another stunning development in President Donald Trump’s ongoing Russian woes.
The Times had confirmed that two White House officials — senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who previously worked on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office — gave chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) the intelligence information Nunes said proved officials from the Trump transition team were “incidentally” picked up in American foreign surveillance.
Up until The Times’ reporting, the congressman had refused to provide the source of the intelligence, even to Republican members of the committee he chairs. Nunes had revealed this information March 22 in a set of bizarre press conferences and was later criticized for briefing the White House on these intelligence matters, an odd decision for the chairman of a committee tasked with investigating potential Trump ties with Russia.
When the press secretary finally appeared, he acted nearly as bizarre as Nunes. Spicer began with a forced joke directed at Matthew Rosenberg, one of The Times’ reporters who broke the story in question, before denying to answer any questions related to the matter during his hour-long briefing.
This kind of behavior is becoming par for the course for those in the Trump camp, to the point where it’s no longer that surprising. After all, the Russian scandal did explode in more ways than one just last week, and the Trump team is visibly reeling. For the first time, the American people were offered confirmation from FBI Director James Comey that Russian interference in the 2016 election is under investigation, along with the ties between members of the Trump campaign and Russia. And last week CNN reported the FBI is in possession of documents that suggest the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election to strategically leak documents that would harm Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
As these new findings were being digested, the Nunes story was beginning to take shape with its peculiarities on full display. These included Nunes’ White House rendezvous the night before he revealed the “incidental collection” findings, as well as the congressman’s cancellation of an open hearing scheduled for Tuesday, which was set to feature former director of national intelligence James Clapper, former CIA director John Brennan and former deputy attorney general Sally Yates (The Washington Post reported Tuesday the White House had attempted to block Yates from speaking, an assertion the White House later denied).
But after Thursday’s revelation, the Nunes story appears to be reaching its climax, and it doesn’t look good for either Nunes or the White House.
The idea that Nunes may have coordinated with the White House in an effort to verify — or at least attempt to verify — Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower has never been far-fetched. Nunes worked on Trump’s transition team, raising further questions about whether he can appropriately conduct a fair investigation, and also whether his concern with the incidentally collected information may be out of self-interest.
And Ellis and Cohen-Watnick have interesting pasts of their own, particularly Cohen-Watnick. Trump overrode the decision of national security adviser Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster to remove Cohen-Watnick from his position. And former NSC Michael Flynn — who resigned amidst reports he had discussed sanctions with a Russian ambassador — brought Cohen-Watnick into the Trump transition team and later the NSC.
Thursday evening, The Wall Street Journal reported that Flynn was willing to testify in exchange for immunity, confirming a rumor swarming political blogs since last week. It’s unclear if Flynn has information directly related to Trump, but Flynn has been conspicuously quiet in the weeks since his forced resignation and his apparent fear of legal consequence suggests the information he may be in possession of — or directly involved in — could be particularly damning.
Overall, Thursday’s findings raise more questions than they do answers. But, as they have for months now, all signs are pointed at Moscow and a thorough, fair and public investigation is more necessary now than ever.
Is the White House up to something? Maybe, maybe not. But as of right now, they’re certainly acting as if they have something to hide.
Jared Casto can be contacted at [email protected]