The White House repeatedly deflected questions Thursday about whether any Trump administration officials gave the House Intelligence Committee chairman information that led him to say Trump transition members were caught up in standard foreign surveillance.
Two White House officials played a role in giving Republican Rep. Devin Nunes the intelligence reports that fueled his statement that Trump transition team members had information "incidentally" picked up, The New York Times reported Thursday. They are Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues, the Times said, citing "several current American officials."
It potentially heightens the criticism about Nunes' ability to conduct the House panel's investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election without White House interference. If the White House had a role in giving Nunes the intelligence, which he then shared with Trump, it could create more doubts about the independence of the probe, which includes looking into any possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
During his daily news briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not concede if the reporting is correct. Asked if he would tell reporters if the report was wrong, he said he was "not going to get into it."
Prompted another time about whether Nunes' information came from the White House, he said, "I cannot get into who those individuals were."
"If I start going down the path of confirming or denying one thing, we're going down a very slippery slope," Spicer said.
A spokesman for Nunes, who served on Trump's transition team, told NBC News that the California congressman will not "confirm or deny speculation about his source's identity."
Nunes has faced increasing pressure, including calls from Democratic colleagues to recuse himself from the Russia probe, after he held a news conference last week to announce that he had seen reports of incidental surveillance of Trump associates. Nunes later admitted to meeting an unidentified source on the White House grounds the day before his news conference.
Critics, including the intelligence panel's Democratic ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, have argued that Nunes may no longer be able to conduct an independent investigation. Schiff previously said the Republican chairman did not share the reports about possible Trump transition surveillance with him before announcing what he found.
As he has in recent days, Spicer deflected attention from what he called the "process" that led to Nunes' public statement. He argued that the "substance" of the congressman's revelation is more important.
The White House has invited the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees to review new material potentially relevant to their investigations, Spicer added. He did not go into detail about what that information is.
Spicer spoke Thursday as the Senate panel held its first public hearing into Moscow's alleged election interference.
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