On an otherwise quiet Saturday morning one month ago, Donald Trump woke up early and – apropos of nothing, to outside observers – dispatched a series of typo-riddled tweets accusing his predecessor of wiretapping his home during and after the 2016 election.
The days and weeks that followed were marked by uncharacteristically uniform denials of his accusations by fellow Republicans. The rank and file were joined by leaders of the House and Senate, Trump’s own FBI director and his director of national intelligence, all distancing themselves from the baseless claim.
Everyone seemed to agree it was absurd – everyone except House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, himself a member of the Trump transition team, who two weeks ago proudly announced to reporters the revelation, reportedly passed to him by two White House officials, that members of the transition team were observed communicating with foreign nationals the U.S. government was spying on.
This wasn’t exactly the “Nixon/Watergate” scenario Trump alluded to on Twitter, but it vaguely gestured at surveillance of some kind – legal, and by all appearances legitimate, surveillance of foreign nationals, but surveillance nonetheless.
It’s confusing, then, to see Republicans this week suddenly rallying around Trump’s claim – not because the claim has grown any more credible, but because of the disclosure that Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice is somehow involved.
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That revelation surfaced in a Bloomberg story published Monday. Unnamed White House sources told reporter Eli Lake that Rice “requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” (In such reports, the identities of Americans are typically anonymized.)
The eye-popping takeaway here should rightfully be that White House sources confirmed Trump associates met with individuals whom the government deemed shady enough to place under ongoing surveillance dozens of times throughout the transition and campaign.
But to a certain, rabid breed of Republican, intense mistrust of Rice dates back to Benghazi. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, Rice – then a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations – went on cable news and repeated what was at the time the administration’s talking point: The attack was precipitated by spontaneous protests over an offensive video. She later apologized, explaining that she was referring to information provided by the CIA, but the controversy has never really gone away.
Even to moderate Republicans, Rice is viewed with suspicion. As conservative CNN commentator Ana Navarro put it, Rice “is universally mistrusted & loathed by Republicans … like ‘Newman’ on Seinfeld.”
On The Hugh Hewitt Show Tuesday, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton reached for a different metaphor: “Susan Rice is the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy.”
Cotton went on to say, “Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it – whether it was these allegations of improper unmasking and potential improper surveillance, whether it was Benghazi or many of the other fiascos of the Obama administration. … The last thing we need are political operatives in the White House fooling around with intelligence to make it harder to pass the laws we need to keep Americans safe.”
Rand Paul – who was not, until their golf summit this past weekend, especially close with Trump or his lackeys – tweeted Tuesday, “Smoking gun found! Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign.” Paul has since called for a subpoena ordering Rice to testify before Congress. On Wednesday, Trump went so far as to falsely characterize Rice’s behavior as criminal.
Rice explained the nature of her requests to “unmask” Americans mentioned in the surveillance reports in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Tuesday.
As Lake notes in his Bloomberg piece, the requests were legal and fell within the scope of her job as national security adviser. Every morning, Rice told Mitchell, she and other high-ranking administration officials like the secretaries of state and defense received a compilation of intelligence reports. “There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to – name not provided, just ‘U.S. person’ and sometimes, in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request the information as to who that U.S. official was,” Rice said.
She offered this hypothetical: “Let’s say there was a conversation between two foreigners about a conversation they were having with an American who was proposing to sell to them high-tech bomb-making equipment. Now if that came to me as national security advisor, it would matter enormously – is this some kook, sitting in his living room, communicating via the internet, offering to sell something he doesn’t have? Or is this a serious person or company or entity with the ability to provide that technology, perhaps to an adversary?”
In a case like the latter, Rice said, she would submit a request for that person’s identity. But they were just that: requests. At the end of the day, the intelligence officials who fielded them were the ones responsible for determining whether the names were relevant enough to be revealed.
She went on to say that she would be glad to testify before Congress. “The investigations that are underway as to the Russian involvement in our electoral process are very important. They are very serious, and every American ought to have an interest in those investigations going wherever the evidence indicates they should,” Rice said. “I have an interest in that as an American citizen. As a former U.S. official, I would want to be helpful in that process if I could.”