Devin Nunes' attempt to steer Trump-Russia probe toward 'unmasking' may be about to backfire spectacularly

  • A top Republican's attempt to deflect in the Trump-Russia probe could be about to backfire.
  • At the heart of the dispute is why the Obama administration requested the "unmasking" of Trump associates involved in conversations with Russian officials.
  • The documents obtained by the chair of the House Intelligence Committee could be trouble for some of the Trump associates involved.

President Donald Trump and his supporters have been on a mission to expose why the Obama administration requested the unmasking of his associates who were either mentioned or directly involved in surveilled conversations with Russian officials last year.

But pursuing that line of inquiry, which Trump has called "the biggest story" about his campaign and Russia, could provide more ammunition to the administration's critics than its defenders — and new report suggests it could backfire in spectacular fashion. 

Intelligence documents obtained by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes — who subpoenaed the National Security Agency, FBI, and CIA for them earlier this summer without telling his Democratic colleagues — contain no evidence of wrongdoing by the Obama administration, Reuters reported Monday.

RELATED: Members past and present of Trump's inner circle

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Members past and present of President Trump's inner circle
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Members past and present of President Trump's inner circle
Ivanka Trump: First daughter and presidential adviser
Gen. John Kelly: Former Secretary of Homeland Security, current White House chief of staff
Steve Bannon: Former White House chief strategist, no longer with the Trump administration
Jared Kushner: Son-in-law and senior adviser
Kellyanne Conway: Former Trump campaign manager, current counselor to the president
Reince Priebus: Former White House chief of staff, no longer with the Trump administration
Anthony Scaramucci: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Sarah Huckabee Sanders: White House press secretary
Donald Trump Jr.: First son to President Trump
Sean Spicer: Former White House press secretary, soon to be no longer with the Trump administration
Jeff Sessions: U.S. attorney general
Steve Mnuchin: Secretary of Treasury
Paul Manafort: Former Trump campaign chairman
Carter Page: Former foreign policy adviser to Trump's presidential campaign
Omarosa Manigault: Director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison
Melania Trump: Wife to President Trump and first lady of the United States
Jason Miller: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Hope Hicks: White House Director of Strategic Communications
Mike Dubke: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Stephen Miller: Trump senior policy adviser
Corey Lewandowski: Former Trump campaign manager
Eric Trump: Son to President Trump
Rex Tillerson: Secretary of State
Michael Flynn: Former National Security Advisor, no longer with the Trump administration
Sebastian Gorka: Former deputy assistant to the president in the Trump administration, no longer in his White House role
Roger Stone: Former Trump campaign adviser, current host of Stone Cold Truth
Betsy DeVos: U.S. Education Secretary
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But the memos do indicate that some of Trump's associates made contact with Russian nationals during the election that may have violated an 18th-century law called the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from attempting to intervene in a conflict between the US and a foreign government. 

It is unclear whether Nunes will share the content of the intelligence reports with his fellow committee members. Early reports have suggested that Trump associates like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and early campaign foreign policy aide Carter Page were either mentioned or directly involved in surveilled conversations with Russian officials during the election.

An intercepted conversation between Russian officials leaked to The Washington Post earlier this summer about Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is another example of how digging deeper into which of Trump's associates surfaced in US intelligence reports — and why — has heightened rather than eased scrutiny of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. 

Jared Ivanka Trump KushnerMark Wilson / Getty Images

The Post reported that Kushner, then a top transition official and now a senior adviser to the president, discussed the possibility of setting up a secure line of communication between Trump's transition team and Russia when he met with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December. Kislyak relayed the request by phone to his superiors in Moscow in a conversation that was promptly picked up by US eavesdroppers.

Kislyak's call, which apparently described an attempt to bypass the US's national-security and intelligence apparatus, would have gone into an intelligence report distributed among top government officials like Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser.

It also would have raised a big red flag, said Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and NSA. When asked earlier this year if he would have sought to unmask the US person cited by Kislyak as having proposed a secret back channel to Russia, Hayden was unequivocal.

"Oh my, yes," he told Business Insider. "Anyone would have."

A Democratic committee aide told Business Insider in June that Nunes and other Republicans on the committee were trying to make questions about unmasking "the focal issue" of the committee's probe into Russia's election interference because "they're trying to divert attention away from the investigation" into Trump's campaign.

"That's the obvious motive," the aide said, adding that Nunes told the Democrats "super last minute" about his unmasking subpoenas. "The Democrats feel that Nunes has gone rogue, or that he's trying to undermine the committee because he no longer serves in the top position on this investigation." 

Susan RiceChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Nunes stepped aside from the Russia investigation after telling the press and Trump, but not his fellow committee members, that he had seen reports showing that the intelligence community "incidentally collected" information about Trump and his team during the transition period. (Republican and Democratic sources who reviewed the same intelligence, however, told CNN they saw no evidence of wrongdoing by the Obama administration.)

The intelligence reports Nunes obtains, however, will likely be of interest to FBI special counsel Robert Mueller as he continues his probe into Russia's election interference and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow. 

"Pushing the 'unmasking' line only leads to more information about why the requests were made," said Susan Hennessey, a former attorney for the NSA. "Not a path that's been helpful to his cause thus far."

Responding to criticism of the subpoenas, Nunes tweeted at the time that he was "seeing a lot of fake news from media elites and others who have no interest in violations of Americans' civil liberties via unmaskings."

Current and former US intelligence officials have acknowledged that leaking the identities of US persons named in intelligence reports is illegal. But requests by top administration officials, like Rice, to identify which US persons foreign agents are speaking to or about would not have been unusual or against the law.

Indeed, the House Intel Committee under Nunes' leadership made at least 5-6 unmasking requests to US spy agencies related to Russia's election meddling between June 2016-January 2017, the Washington Post reported in June. Nunes would have had to sign off on any committee requests to reveal the identities of US persons mentioned in intelligence reports.

Rice, for her part, has denied that she ever requested unmaskings for political purposes — but any politically motivated unmasking request would most likely be shot down by the NSA anyway.

"The NSA is notoriously conservative in revealing US identities in its reporting," Hayden told Business Insider earlier this year. "Obviously, a request from the national security adviser to unmask an identity would be given great weight. That said, it is not automatic and goes through a carefully documented process at the NSA before an identity is unmasked."

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