For all of his careful outsider branding, President Donald Trump and his administration seem to have become quick studies in one of the oldest Beltway traditions ― the flacking and spinning of the media narrative.
Right now, the Trump White House is being dogged by a multi-agency probe into whether members of its campaign inner circle had improper contacts with Russian officials. The Trump counter-narrative to all of this has been to try to invert the story entirely, and turn it into the saga of leaker-resisters trying to take down his administration. That effort reached new heights on March 4, when Trump fired off a series of tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of masterminding a plot to wiretap Trump Tower.
Of course, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that this is the story with which the Trump White House has stuck itself, thus forcing his administration to reverse-engineer a basis for this outlandish claim. And its most recent effort involves someone who’s logged a lot of hours in the counter-narrative barrel over the years: former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice. Rice has essentially been accused of having acted improperly when she sought to “unmask” the identities of Trump affiliates who showed up anonymized in intelligence reports. Rice has countered that she was simply doing her job, and properly at that.
Based on the available evidence, Rice is right, and her reborn critics are awash in desperate deflection. And the deflection has an added layer of irony, considering that attacking Rice in this way requires her antagonists to reaffirm the fact that Trump’s aides were repeatedly caught either communicating with or ― and this is a critical distinction ― being discussed by people targeted in ongoing surveillance operations. As national security reporter Marcy Wheeler puts it:
It’s clear the right wing wants to shift this into Benghazi 2.0, attacking Susan Rice for activities that are, at least on the face of it, part of her job. But the only way the White House could be sure that she (or Ben Rhodes, who they’re also naming) were the ones to leak this would be to investigate not just those two, but also all the FBI (which would have access to this information without unmasking these names, which not a single one of these right wing scribes admit or even seem to understand). That is, the only way they could make credible, as opposed to regurgitated right wing propaganda accusations about leakers is to have spied even more inappropriately than they are accusing the Obama White House of doing.
To truly understand the inanity in all of this, it helps to dig deep into the complexities.
On March 20, FBI Director James Comey testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee and confirmed the existence of a multi-agency intelligence probe into Russian interference with the 2016 election ― as well as confirming that Trump and his team were part of that investigation. Details of that inquiry, which began in earnest last summer, had long been bubbling up into the news transom. But more recently, it was revealed that as a part of this investigation, the intelligence community had successfully sought permission to target foreign actors with surveillance.
We’ve known for some time that the intelligence community harbored suspicions that Russian officials were in contact with members of the Trump campaign. In fact, as The Guardian reported, the FBI sought a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that named “four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials.” The court did not grant that warrant on the grounds that it was too broad. According to reports, the FBI got its warrant on the second attempt ― the names of the Trump officials were removed and the focus was narrowed to just Russian officials.
Members of Trump’s campaign team were nevertheless picked up as parties to these surveilled communications. This is what the intelligence community calls “incidental collection.” And this is where Susan Rice enters the picture.
As the national security adviser, she would not be immediately privy to the names of Americans picked up in incidental collection ― those persons would be anonymized in the briefings provided to her by the intelligence community. However, she would be entitled to request that those identities be revealed. This would touch off an administrative process, and if the relevant intelligence agency deemed it appropriate, Rice would be provided with those identities. It’s important to understand that the national security adviser can only request this information, not order it.
The revealing of these identities is called “unmasking,” and those identities would only be “unmasked” to the person making the request. It would be illegal to disseminate this information, because it is, for all intents and purposes, classified.
According to reports, Rice made “multiple requests to unmask U.S. persons in intelligence reports that related to Trump transition activities.” And now, depending on your point of view, she either did this as a necessary part of her job, or she did so for nefarious political reasons.
These distinctions have become crystallized in a weird meta-media squabble over this story’s reporting. The first person to write about Rice’s link to the “unmasking” of the previously anonymized Trump officials was Mike Cernovich, an “alt-right” blogger best known for trafficking in conspiracy theories and labeling the mainstream press dedicated purveyors of “fake news.” Cernovich presents these findings as a certain backstop to Trump’s claims that the Obama White House had ordered Trump’s campaign to be put under surveillance.
But the first person within the mainstream media to subsequently provide reporting on the story was Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, and he takes great pains to point out that these findings do not prove Trump’s larger claims. Per Lake:
Rice’s requests to unmask the names of Trump transition officials do not vindicate Trump’s own tweets from March 4 in which he accused Obama of illegally tapping Trump Tower. There remains no evidence to support that claim.
But Rice’s multiple requests to learn the identities of Trump officials discussed in intelligence reports during the transition period does highlight a longstanding concern for civil liberties advocates about U.S. surveillance programs. The standard for senior officials to learn the names of U.S. persons incidentally collected is that it must have some foreign intelligence value, a standard that can apply to almost anything. This suggests Rice’s unmasking requests were likely within the law.
Cernovich has since accused Lake of “plagiarizing” his work, and has further charged him ― along with The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman ― of “sitting” on the story in order to protect the Obama administration. (Cernovich claims to have obtained this scoop after insiders in the Bloomberg and New York Times newsrooms tipped him off about the story.) Naturally, the biggest reason that a reporter doesn’t publish a story is because they’re not done reporting it. There’s no real evidence that Lake delayed his story out of the need to protect Obama administration officials. In fact, this would be a deeply strange thing for Lake ― a dogged critic of the Obama White House’s Iran deal.
Meanwhile, as Talking Points Memo’s Allegra Kirkland reports, “surveillance and national security experts” do not discern any wrongdoing on Rice’s part:
“Part of her job as national security adviser is to pay attention to what foreign governments are doing,” Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor who handled foreign surveillance cases, told TPM. “If she’s asking for specific names to be unmasked in order to understand what Russia may be doing to influence the U.S. political system and influence our elections, presumably in a way they thought would benefit them, she’s doing her job.”
Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, noted on Twitter that it was not “odd or wrong” for the national security adviser to read “a report of foreign officials discussing US persons coming into” the White House. And Susan Hennessey, a fellow in national security governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote of the Bloomberg article that “nothing in this story indicates anything improper whatsoever.”
Rice herself made an appearance on MSNBC Tuesday afternoon, where she was interviewed by Andrea Mitchell about this whole kerfuffle. Rice described the unmasking process as one that begins with an executive branch national security official making a formal request for the identities of Americans caught up in incidental collection, which then touches off a set of procedures on the intelligence agency side to determine whether such a revelation would be appropriate.
Rice told Mitchell that she could not recall whether the “pace” of such requests was, in general, more accelerated in the final months of the Obama administration compared with the rest of her tenure ― but that certainly the pace of the overall investigation into Russian interference heated up after the intelligence community offered their consensus opinion that something worth investigating was taking place. Rice maintained that to fail to ask for the identities of those Americans caught up on the “incidental collection” side of the surveillance probe would have constituted “dereliction of duty”:
RICE: “We can’t be passive consumers of this information and do our jobs effectively to protect the American people. Imagine if we saw something of grave significance that involved Russia, or China, or anybody else, interfering in our political process and we needed to understand the significance of that. For us not to try to understand that would be dereliction of duty.
“I leaked nothing to nobody, never have and never would,” she added.
Rice also denied that there were any political implications behind her request. And that, really, is the point of contention here ― that Rice, and by extension Obama, dreamed up this surveillance foray for the purpose of undermining Trump’s political aspirations. Proof of such a claim will be very hard to come by ― absent some secret email where Rice admits to engineering this caper for electoral purposes, or some leaker with a definitive paper trail, it’s something that can never really be proven. For the time being, we are left to wonder why, if this was Obama’s plan, he didn’t act on it until after Trump was elected? It would seem to be an awful lot of trouble to go to ― and a lot of scandal to court ― to just sit on any smoking gun, regardless of whether it was fruit from a poisonous tree, legally speaking.
But for the sake of clarity, let’s take a moment to remember how we got to this place. On March 1, news broke that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kisylak, during the presidential campaign ― facts that directly contradicted testimony Sessions offered during his confirmation hearings. This revelation forced Sessions to recuse himself from any involvement into the ongoing inquiries about Russian interference in the election. Trump was angered by Sessions’ decision, left the White House for Mar-A-Lago after a heated confrontation with senior staff over the matter, and then woke up the next day, tweeted about Obama and “wire taps,” sending everything spinning out of control.
Which may be a kind way to describe what’s happened since Trump fired off those intemperate tweets. Doing so immediately forced Comey’s hand, leading him to publicly confirm that an investigation into Russian meddling and possible connections to the Trump campaign team was an ongoing affair. It then led to the bizarre spectacle of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes gallivanting hither and yon, revealing classified information and fracturing his own committee ― all of which might speed the formation of a formal independent investigation into the matter.
And, as we’ve already noted, on top of everything else, the White House decision to defend Trump by constantly questioning the political motives of those involved in the intelligence that was incidentally collected forces them to continually remind the public that people in Trump’s orbit were either in regular communication with, or a regular topic of conversation among foreign agents who’d been the targets of surveillance ― a strange thing to be playing up on a daily basis.
It’s abundantly clear that Trump’s decision to baselessly accuse the Obama administration of spying on Trump Tower has done him no good. Had Trump just accepted the fact that Sessions was going to have to recuse himself after discrepancies in his sworn testimony came to light, things would not have spiralled out of control in this fashion. The investigation that Comey confirmed was happening would still be happening, but there wouldn’t be all this new adversity piled onto the old.
Trump’s instinctual need to always fight back may soothe him psychologically, and it may rally his fan base to see him on the front foot, launching new accusations against his enemies. But he’s not earning himself any kind of material advantage. The intelligence community has declared the possibility that President Obama ordered a political espionage plot against the Trump campaign to be a dead letter. We’re not going to actually arrive at that conclusion ― it’s all shadows and fog, with Susan Rice thrown into the mix to goose the obfuscation anew. And mounting this weird defense is consuming time, energy, and political capital.
Clearly the best decision would have been for Trump to not further inflame the matter, especially if his position is that he and his associates will ultimately be cleared of any wrongdoing. (That...is their position, right?)
Let’s face some facts. It is entirely possible that when all the dust has settled, and all the probes have ended, it will be well and duly concluded that Trump and his inner circle did nothing untoward to sully the integrity of the elections, with Russian agents or otherwise. (Remember how I made a distinction between communicating with targets of surveillance and being discussed by targets of surveillance? Both are ways for non-targets to end up in “incidental collection,” but one is more nefarious-sounding than the other.)
Regardless of how anyone feels about Trump or his presidency, one should hope for this outcome. Those hopes would be furthered considerably, however, if Trump and his coterie would stop behaving in a way that suggests that they know that the last chapter of this story is going to end badly for them.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.