Trump team’s allegations against Susan Rice
Republicans this week accused former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice of using intelligence information to spy on President Donald Trump’s associates—a claim Democrats insist is designed to distract attention from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia. Rice reportedly asked intelligence agencies in her final weeks in office to provide her with the names of some Trump associates who had been mentioned in surveillance reports about foreign nationals. The identities of U.S. citizens caught up in “incidental” collection are typically concealed in internal intelligence reports, but high-level officials can ask for them to be “unmasked.” In an interview on NBC, Rice said “unmasking” was sometimes “necessary to do my job,” and insisted that she had never leaked names or used intelligence for “political purposes.”
The Rice revelations came amid a fierce partisan struggle over the FBI and congressional investigations into whether Trump loyalists colluded in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign. The investigation by the House Intelligence Committee essentially ground to a halt in rancor, after its Republican chairman, Devin Nunes of California, privately met with two White House officials, and then announced he’d seen reports showing Trump aides were “incidentally” swept up in surveillance. In other developments: Russian spies targeted former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page after meeting with him in 2013, BuzzFeed.com reported. Trump campaign donor and adviser Erik Prince, a founder of the security firm Blackwater, had a secret overseas meeting in January with a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin, in an attempt to establish a Trump-Moscow back channel, The Washington Post reported. The White House denied any knowledge of the meeting.
What the editorials said
Don’t fall for these “diversionary stratagems,” said The Washington Post. Ever since evidence started mounting that Trump’s team may have been working with the Russians, the president has been “doing his best to confuse the public.” His ludicrous claim that then–President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on Trump Tower was an attempt to shift the focus toward leaks, and away from his ties to Russia—and now Nunes and other water carriers have taken up that mission. Sorry, but Rice is not credible, said The Wall Street Journal. Two weeks ago, she was denying any knowledge of surveillance of Trump associates. By asking for the “unmasking,” she may not have broken the law, but she was clearly motivated by “political curiosity.” Investigators looking into Trump’s Russian connections must also determine whether the Obama administration “abused domestic surveillance for its political purposes.”
What the columnists said
Of all the diversionary tactics Trump and his backers have deployed, this “ranks among the most desperate,” said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. Unmasking requests by senior White House officials aren’t unusual—former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden calls them “somewhat routine.” As for motive, Rice’s alleged request came when investigators were looking into whether Russia had interfered in the election, and whether Trump’s cronies were trying to “undermine U.S. foreign policy” by promising to lift Obama’s punitive sanctions on Putin. In other words, she was just doing her job.
Sorry, but “that won’t wash,” said Andrew McCarthy in National Review.com. Rice, who disgraced herself trying to cover for the Obama administration during the Benghazi scandal, asked for the names so they’d spread “down the dissemination chain” to people who might leak them. Lo and behold, national security adviser Michael Flynn later lost his job when details of his wiretapped conversation with a Russian ambassador were leaked. The media can’t afford to ignore this story, said Peter Wallison in RealClearPolitics.com. If there’s any evidence Obama officials encouraged intelligence agencies to surveil Trump’s campaign or transition team, it would be a “Watergate-level scandal.”
The legal “unmasking” of names during a legitimate investigation is irrelevant, said Jennifer Rubin in WashingtonPost.com. What should disturb every American is the mounting evidence that numerous Trump associates—including Flynn, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and former adviser Carter Page—got money from Russia and had secret meetings with Russians, and then worked for “the only candidate pushing a pro-Putin line.” Maybe it’s all “lots and lots of smoke,” with no fire. But Trump and his loyalists are doing a good impression of “panicked people trying to hide something very damaging.”