Representative Devin Nunes looked uneasy. Mr. Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was struggling on Monday to elicit details from James Comey, the F.B.I. director, about his explosive revelation that the bureau is investigating whether Russia and the Trump administration colluded to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. That disclosure, Mr. Nunes said, had put “a big, gray cloud” over the White House.
On Wednesday, Mr. Nunes tried to replace that cloud with a smoke screen. In a possible violation of the law, Mr. Nunes described intelligence reports that he said had suggested that American intelligence agencies incidentally intercepted communications of then President-elect Trump and people close to him, and then disseminated the information widely throughout the intelligence community. His disclosures, which have destroyed the credibility of his committee in investigating Russian interference in the election, make clear that he is unfit for the job and should be replaced.
Mr. Nunes’s remarks, which appeared to be deliberately vague, gave President Trump cover for his baseless claim that President Barack Obama had illegally wiretapped his phones. After making his disclosures during a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Nunes went to the White House to brief the president. In a startling break with tradition, Mr. Nunes, a Republican, briefed reporters before sharing his findings with fellow members of the committee, who are from both parties. Mr. Trump portrayed the congressman’s assertions as a vindication of his widely discredited accusation. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found,” Mr. Trump said.[...]
Mr. Nunes unspooled his information on Wednesday over the course of two news conferences that had a strikingly improvisational air. At one point, he said he was referring to material that “appears to be all legally collected foreign intelligence.” Soon afterward, he proclaimed himself to be “actually alarmed by it.” It was hard to understand exactly what Mr. Nunes was alleging, perhaps because he didn’t have any truly alarming revelation to share.
Mr. Nunes’s remarks left the impression that American intelligence personnel may have been careless in redacting identifying information of American citizens whose communications were intercepted as part of the lawful monitoring of foreigners. He did not, however, claim that intelligence personnel broke rules.
By speaking expansively about intelligence gathering, Mr. Nunes may have broken the law by disclosing classified information, however obliquely. The congressman, who has assailed leaks to the press, said his information came from unnamed “sources who thought that we should know it.” That’s rich. [...]
But Mr. Nunes’s conduct stands out for his brazenness and heedlessness. His role as a committee chairman is to carry out responsible oversight of intelligence matters. Instead, he used his position to distract attention from the crucial question of whether Mr. Trump’s election was aided by collusion with an adversary.