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White House thrown off balance as Nunes controversy intensifies

The White House struggled Thursday to respond to a new report claiming that two White House officials played a role in passing classified information to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
  
Press secretary Sean Spicer faced a barrage of questions from reporters about the story, which was published by The New York Times just before his press briefing began.
 
"I've read the report, and respectfully, your question assumes the reporting is correct," Spicer said at the top of the briefing.  
 
"We are not going to start commenting on one-off anonymous sources that publications publish." 
 
The story states that Ezra Cohen-Watnick of the National Security Council and Michael Ellis of the White House Counsel's office were the likely sources of information given to House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) about incidental surveillance of the Trump transition team.
 

Nunes personally briefed President Trump on that information after he received it. Earlier this week, it came to light that the congressman visited the White House grounds the day before that briefing with Trump.

The Times report appeared to contradict repeated assertions from Nunes that the White House was not the source of his information.
 
When journalists asked Spicer why he has not yet shared which official let Nunes onto the White House grounds to review the materials in a secure location — a question reporters have asked repeatedly this week — Spicer replied, “I never said that I would provide you answers, I said we would look into it.”
 
Spicer tried to turn the focus to a recent invitation from the White House to the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees to review materials related to their investigations into Russian interference in the election.  
He wouldn’t confirm whether the new information was the same as what Nunes has already seen.
 
Spicer also said one of his previous comments — that suspicions the White House provided Nunes with the information didn’t “pass the smell test” — was based on Nunes's words at the time. 
 
Overall, he said reporters are too obsessed with the “process” over the “substance” of the surveillance matter and are refusing to give investigators the same leeway to use anonymous sources that journalists get when they write stories about the administration.
 
“We have invited the chairman and the ranking members who are looking into this and reviewing the matter up here. That doesn’t mean we allow uncleared members from the media to come and look at this,” Spicer said. 
 
“I understand that you want all the process answers, what day did they come in, what they were wearing, what door they came in — the relevant questions are about the substance of this. And it’s interesting, I don’t get the same thing when I see these published stories with anonymous sources.”
 
The White House’s response is likely to fuel more questions about whether it is trying to meddle in an investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russia, which is being carried out in part by the House Intelligence panel. 
 
Nunes, a former Trump transition official, has come under criticism as being too close to the White House. Other members of the committee said he erred in taking the information about surveillance directly to Trump before sharing it with his colleagues. 
 
The committee chief told reporters last week that he met with a source secretly on White House grounds, where he obtained information that showed information on Trump transition members was incidentally collected in routine surveillance. 
 
At the time, Nunes said his source was an intelligence agent, not a White House staffer.
 
But the secrecy surrounding the meeting and the source has created a storm of controversy.
 
Democrats accuse Nunes of carrying water for the administration and seeking to give Trump cover for his claim that President Obama's administration surveilled him during the campaign.