The FBI is currently investigating whether Donald Trump advisers collaborated inappropriately with Russian officials before and after last November’s election. The White House has responded to the investigation by arguing that the real scandal is that Trump associates were surveilled inappropriately by the Obama administration. (Trump tweeted on March 4 that Obama had ordered a “tapp” on his phones.) The pushback effort hit a snag last week when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was caught collaborating with Trump administration officials on a scheme to obscure the source of some vaguely suggestive information about said surveillance that he’d gotten from the White House itself. Monday morning, though, it became clear that the next phase of the Trump counterattack is ready to launch despite the Nunes embarrassment—and that this phase will involve trying to make Obama national security adviser Susan Rice into the villain of the affair.
First up was Fox News reporter Adam Housley’s appearance on the Fox & Friends morning show, which you can see above. Here’s the key takeaway, regarding information he was given by unidentified sources about the “unmasking” of names of Trump associates who were mentioned or picked up in (legal) surveillance of foreign targets:
There was electronic surveillance of Trump and the people close to Donald Trump, including some supporters, for up to a year before inauguration. That information was disseminated, we’re told, through NSA channels. It’s unprecedented, I’m told, the way this was done. The mentions of U.S. citizens are supposed to be masked, which means basically taken out of a report … What I’m told now is when these reports came out, names were there and that is unprecedented.
Trump immediately amplified this report:
Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, a right-leaning national security reporter, then published a report that Susan Rice was the person who had asked for Trump-related names to be “unmasked”:
Susan 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, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter … The intelligence reports were summaries of monitored conversations – primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials. One U.S. official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.
The right-wing echo chamber—which was previously fixated on Rice’s alleged involvement in the alleged Benghazi coverup—is already going full speed ahead in suggesting that this development means Rice is a traitor, will go to jail forever, etc. Last week an Obama administration figure named Evelyn Farkas was the subject of similar hysteria; Rice is bigger game. Of course, there are some pretty big caveats necessary. One is in Lake’s piece itself:
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.
Additionally, as mentioned, an unknown number of Donald Trump’s associates are under FBI investigation for having had potentially inappropriate contact with Russian officials. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after he was caught lying about the content of a pre-inauguration conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S—and Flynn, we’ve since learned, was also on the payroll of the Turkish government at around the same time. So there may well have been urgent, legal reasons for Rice to have wanted information about the relationships between specific Trump-related figures and foreign individuals.
As with so many elements of the larger Russia scandal, what we know about unmasking is coming to us third-hand through sources whose own motivations are unclear. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re probably going to hear Susan Rice’s name about eleventy billion times in the next few days.