WASHINGTON — Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, met on the White House grounds with a source who showed him secret U.S. intelligence reports a day before he revealed that President Donald Trump or his closest associates may have been “incidentally” swept up in foreign surveillance by U.S. spy agencies.
The meeting, confirmed Monday by his spokesman, was likely to further intensify questions about what prompted Nunes to make the claim about the intelligence gathering and who gave him the information.
The spokesman for Nunes, Jack Langer, said the congressman met with his source at the White House because he needed access to a secure facility where people with security clearances can legally view classified information. But such facilities can also be found in the Capitol building, and other locations across Washington.
Democrats characterized Nunes’ announcement last week as an attempt by a congressman who was eager to do the White House’s bidding to distract from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called it “more than suspicious” that Nunes went to the White House complex, pointing out that he would “have to be escorted” while there.
“Who is he meeting with?” Warner said in an interview with NBC. “Was it a source or somebody from the administration?”
Langer did not address those concerns Monday. In a brief statement, he said: “Chairman Nunes met with his source at the White House grounds in order to have proximity to a secure location where he could view the information provided by the source.”
He added: “The chairman is extremely concerned by the possible improper unmasking of names of U.S. citizens, and he began looking into this issue even before President Trump tweeted his assertion that Trump Tower had been wiretapped.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Monday that White House officials had no previous knowledge of Nunes’ visit to the White House grounds, saying the only information he had had come from “public reports.”
He also said officials were “not concerned” about the prospect that someone within the executive branch had leaked classified information to Nunes.
“Someone who is cleared to share classified information with someone else and is cleared is not a leak,” Spicer said.
For at least one Democrat, the latest revelation was the last straw. Accusing Nunes of weakening not only the committee’s tradition of bipartisanship but also Congress itself, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, on Monday urged House Speaker Paul Ryan to replace Nunes.
“He has not been cooperating like someone who is interested in getting to the unvarnished truth,” Schumer said.
Acknowledging that the incidental collection from surveillance appeared to be legal, Nunes on Wednesday said his concerns surrounded additional names that may have been improperly “unmasked.” Normally, intelligence agencies mask the identities of U.S. citizens who are incidentally present in intercepted communications.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the intelligence committee’s top Democrat, said Nunes worried that anyone viewing the distributed reports could decipher who they were discussing even though the names were masked.
Nunes repeatedly declined to offer any details about the source of what he characterized as “dozens” of classified intelligence reports, which Schiff accused him of viewing in a “dead-of-night excursion.” Nunes only said the information had come to him after the committee’s public hearing Monday.
On Friday, Nunes declined to say whether that information had come from the White House.
“You can ask me every single name that exists on the planet, and I’m still not going to tell you who our sources are,” he told reporters.
Schiff said Sunday that neither he nor, to his knowledge, anyone on the committee other than Nunes had viewed the information. “We are all quite in the dark on this,” he said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Nunes’ disclosures have sparked a crisis in the House investigation into Russian meddling in the election. Bypassing Schiff entirely, Nunes said he briefed Ryan and then White House officials, including Trump — a decision that Democrats said called the independence of both Nunes and the entire investigation into question.
Nunes on Friday defended his decision to bypass Schiff and go to the White House, saying he felt a “duty” to tell Trump because of Democrats’ “relentless” political attacks.
“If we would have crossed paths in the hall, maybe I would have said something to him,” Nunes said in an interview. “But what I was trying to do was get to the president as quick as possible.”
“It’s about the politics of this,” he added. “And I just thought that it was more important for me to get to the president of the United States because Mr. Schiff was going to find out.”
Trump seized on the information, saying he felt “somewhat” vindicated in his wiretapping claim against former President Barack Obama — debunked by FBI Director James Comey and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, as well as the heads of both the Senate and House investigations, including Nunes.