No, the Justice Department Did Not Wiretap the House Cloakroom

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Rep. Devin Nunes dropped a bombshell: the Department of Justice had bugged the House cloakroom as part of its AP investigation. It's an explosive allegation — and almost certainly an incorrect one.

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In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Rep. Devin Nunes of California dropped a bit of a bombshell: the Department of Justice had tapped the House cloakroom as part of its AP investigation. It's an explosive allegation — and almost certainly an incorrect one.

Nunes and Hewitt were discussing whether or not the Department of Justice could be trusted to investigate the IRS when Nunes made the claim:

DN: No, I absolutely do not, especially after this wiretapping incident, essentially, of the House of Representative. I don’t think people are focusing on the right thing when they talk about going after the AP reporters. The big problem that I see is that they actually tapped right where I’m sitting right now, the Cloakroom.

HH: Wait a minute, this is news to me.

DN: The Cloakroom in the House of Representatives.

The exchange is now on the Drudge Report; it's on The Weekly Standard; it's on Breitbart. The headline or body text usually refers to two things: a wiretapping, and the cloak room. Aside from the words above, there's no evidence of either.

According to the Associated Press, the letter it received from the Department of Justice alerting it to the subpoena of phone records was sweeping, but not that sweeping. Justice accessed phone records for AP offices, several reporters, and "the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery." Those records likely included incoming and outgoing phone numbers as well as the call's duration. In other words, there's no indication that the Department of Justice wiretapped anything, which, as anyone who has seen television in the past fifteen years knows, involves listening in on telephone conversations. If someone got ahold of your cell phone bill, you have not been "wiretapped."

Nor is there any evidence that Justice accessed those records for the cloakroom. The cloakrooms, as explained by C-SPAN, are private, members-only areas just off the floors of the House and Senate. The press gallery, the area for which the Department of Justice accessed phone data for one line (that of the AP), is another room entirely. (With its own website.) There are phones in the cloakroom, but there's no evidence, besides Nunes' comments, that Justice accessed them — or even that it would have been helpful to.

Despite the alacrity with which the story has been picked up, the very next part of Nunes' conversation with Hewitt walks back his claim a little.

HH: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

DN: So when they went after the AP reporters, right? Went after all of their phone records, they went after the phone records, including right up here in the House Gallery, right up from where I’m sitting right now. So you have a real separation of powers issue that did this really rise to the level that you would have to get phone records that would, that would most likely include members of Congress, because as you know…

HH: Wow.

DN: …members of Congress talk to the press all the time.

Of course, if reporters and members of Congress are talking in person in the Capitol, wiretapping phones wouldn't do much good anyway.

Nunes' broader point was that the "wiretapping" was "a separation of powers issue." As it might have been. If there was any indication that the phone calls with members of Congress had been recorded.

Update, 10:16 a.m.: Jack Langer, director of communications for Nunes, reinforces that no wiretapping occurred.

What Rep. Nunes meant by “tapped” was that the DOJ seized the phone records, as has been widely reported. There was a little confusion between him and the host during the conversation: He did not mean to refer to phone records of the cloakroom itself, but of the Capitol. This refers to the phone records for the AP from  the House press gallery, which the DOJ admitted to looking at. He was explaining that if those phone records were seized, they would reveal a lot of conversations between the press and members of Congress, since reporters often speak to Members from the press gallery phones. The notion of the DOJ looking at phone records from the Capitol of conversations between Members of Congress and reporters is something that concerns Rep. Nunes, bringing up issues related to the separation of powers.

Photo: Devin Nunes, right, is sworn in by Rep. John Boehner. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.