Washington Post lawyers are deposing ex-Nunes aides in libel suit about 2017 White House visit

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Attorneys for The Washington Post have been deposing ex-aides to Devin Nunes as the newspaper fends off the former GOP lawmaker’s libel suit connected to an unusual trip Nunes made to the Trump White House in 2017.

At a court hearing on Wednesday, a lawyer for the newspaper indicated that it had subpoenaed and spoken with several staffers in pursuit of new details about Nunes’ March 21, 2017, visit to the White House to review classified intelligence, as well as his decision to travel to the White House the next day and brief then-President Donald Trump.

Among those the attorneys have deposed: Michael Ellis, a former Nunes aide on the House Intelligence Committee, who later worked in the Trump White House, and Jennifer Morrow, Nunes’ longtime scheduler.

In late 2020, Nunes sued The Post. He alleges in his complaint that a Post story published earlier that year — that labeled Nunes’ visit to the White House a “midnight run” aimed at buttressing Trump’s baseless claims that he had his “wires tapped” while he was a candidate for president — was erroneous and intended to imply nefariousness. The Post report came amid escalating probes related to the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, and as Trump attacked intelligence agencies pursuing the matter.

After the story was published, The Post added a correction to the top of it, noting that Nunes had stated he did not believe the wiretapping claims and that his visit to the White House “took place during daylight hours.”

The litigation is one of a flurry of lawsuits Nunes filed against news outlets, and Post attorneys have accused him in court of wielding the litigation for political and fundraising purposes. They have told the judge in their case that they are seeking evidence from Nunes and his aides about both the circumstances of the 2017 White House trip, which could help prove the accuracy of the paper’s reporting, as well as evidence about how Nunes has sought to benefit from the litigation.

Among the evidence The Post has obtained is an official visitor log showing that Nunes arrived at the White House at 5:30 p.m. on March 21. Nunes estimates he remained for about 90 minutes before attending a Republican Party function and then an afterparty with constituents and a House colleague at the time, former Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.)

But during the nearly two-hour hearing on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols chided Nunes and his attorney, Steven Biss, for what he described as incomplete responses to The Post’s demands for information about the 2017 White House trip. The Post had asked — and Nichols ordered — Nunes to produce a detailed itinerary about his whereabouts and actions on March 21, 2017, and received just three paragraphs in response, omitting key details about where he was and who he was with.

“That’s not a timeline — that could not be more general,” Nichols complained to Biss.

Biss filled in some of those details at Wednesday’s hearing, prompting Nichols to suggest the information should have been turned over to The Post.

“This isn’t about telling me orally what you think happened,” said the judge, who is a Trump appointee.

The Post contended that Nunes’ limited production of information about his White House visit defied credulity. He told the paper that only his former spokesman, Jack Langer, had relevant details about that trip and that he never emailed, texted or spoke to any other aides or colleagues about it. Biss indicated that Nunes couldn’t recall precisely how he arranged the visit but believed he coordinated it with Ellis on a “classified” phone line and treated even the logistical details about the visit as classified.

“Everything related to that meeting was classified,” Biss insisted.

But Nichols noted that Nunes discussed the visit publicly the next day. And Post attorney Nicholas Gamse said that Ellis’ own deposition contradicted aspects of that story. Ellis, he said, recalled stepping out of a secure room to reach Nunes on his personal phone, not a classified line. And Ellis told the paper that he might have texted with Nunes about it, as well. Yet Nunes produced no call records or texts in response to the court’s discovery order.

Gamse contended that Nunes’ claim to have so little to produce in response to the court’s order beggared belief. Ellis, he said, also recalled discussing the documents Nunes reviewed with other Nunes staffers on the House Intelligence Committee. And Nunes provided no details about when and how he departed from the White House to attend the GOP function, including whether he traveled with anyone or took a car, for which a receipt might be available.

“We have not gotten a straight answer,” Gamse complained.

Nichols said he intended to rule on The Post’s complaints quickly to keep the case moving forward.

Biss countered The Post’s concerns by suggesting that there simply wasn’t much for Nunes to produce. He didn’t discuss his White House visit with any staffers, never traded emails or texts with them about it, and asked his former aides to check for information, only to hear that they had none, the lawyer said.

Post attorneys, however, said they obtained at least one text message from Nunes’ former deputy chief of staff, Caitlin Shannon, and a detailed itinerary from Morrow, his scheduler, that Nunes hadn’t turned over in the case. The newspaper’s lawyers also raised concerns that some evidence that might have been relevant might have been destroyed when Nunes resigned his congressional seat at the end of 2021 and staffers returned their official devices.

Biss also disclosed on Wednesday that he and Nunes considered filing suit against at least one other news organization over its reporting on the disputed White House visit. The attorney did not identify which other outlet Nunes considered suing.