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The 'unmasking' of Susan Rice

The Susan Rice brouhaha is more smokescreen than smoking gun in Trump-Russia investigation

Is the latest kerfuffle involving Susan Rice a smoking gun or a smokescreen? The evidence strongly suggests the latter as it's become apparent that President Donald Trump's desire to change the subject from Russian meddling in the last election — and more recently from his own claim that Trump Tower was "wiretapped" last year on orders from President Barack Obama — has become a primary focus of his first three months in office.

Here's what the allegations against Ms. Rice, Mr. Obama's former national security adviser, come down to: She allegedly ordered the "unmasking" of Americans with ties to the Trump campaign caught up in intelligence gathering. Intelligence reports normally redact the identities of the untargeted. But it's apparently not uncommon for high-ranking officials to ask for the names of the individuals involved as a means to, among other things, better understand the context of recorded conversations.

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But some critics, particularly in the right-wing media, have been quick to construe this unmasking as politically motivated and perhaps even criminal. Why? Ms. Rice is a favorite scapegoat of Republicans and because, well, it's a good way to change the topic from what has been an embarrassing episode for the administration. She was similarly vilified during the Benghazi investigation for appearing on news shows immediately after the attack on the Libyan compound and suggesting the violence might have been spontaneous and not necessarily the work of organized Islamic militants — a point of view induced either by, depending on whom you believe, the fog of battle or some ill-considered political spin that was dropped soon after.

Still, let's say she did exactly what was alleged by Trump supporters. In an interview Tuesday, she didn't exactly deny the unmasking but made clear that intelligence was never used for political purposes during her tenure and that she never leaked information to the press. "There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided, just a U.S. person, and sometimes in that context in order to understand the importance of that report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request the information as to who that U.S. official was," she told an NBC reporter. Apparently, this sort of request happens all the time.

So let's go even further. Maybe she was especially worried that Russia was colluding with the Trump campaign to influence the election and was looking for a pattern of behavior by Trump associates. How does that possibility exonerate Mr. Trump? It sounds more like she was doing her job of protecting the country from foreign threats, and it certainly isn't proof of any wiretapping ordered by President Obama. If anything, it reinforces the concerns many Americans share over the possibility of collusion between Russian officials and Trump insiders. The worst possible scenario for Ms. Rice? It hasn't been proven, but perhaps she had a political ax to grind — or maybe (and there's been absolutely no evidence of this presented), she leaked information to the press.

If that's the case and she broke laws, haul her in front of Congress, pursue a prosecution if the evidence is there, whatever. If the absolute worst is true (and the GOP track record for hyperventilating around Ms. Rice strongly suggests that's not the case), she should be investigated and charged. But even if so, that's still a minor subplot to this whole imbroglio. Let's not lose track of the high stakes central allegation: As FBI Director James Comey revealed two weeks ago, there's an ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible involvement and coordination by associates of President Trump.

Frankly, the more President Trump tweets about Susan Rice or his claim of wiretapping of Trump Tower or any other diversion-of-the-month, the more suspicious it all seems. Just as the whole back-and-forth between the White House and Rep. Devin Nunes has made the House Intelligence Committee, as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham succinctly pointed out, look like it's running an "Inspector Clouseau investigation," the Trump tweets and other distractions are only hurting the president's standing with voters (with President Trump now at a record-low approval rating of 35 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll). Changing the subject isn't making the president look innocent, it's making him look desperate.

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