How Republicans Will Try (and Fail) to Upstage Comey
Breathless news coverage of the revitalized congressional investigations is generating excitement about coming revelations in the reality-based community that remains in Washington, consisting mostly of Democrats in Congress and some reporters at mainstream news organizations. The expectation is that James Comey, the former FBI director who has been cleared by special prosecutor Robert Mueller to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, will testify in detail about his meetings in which the president asked him to call off the FBI investigation into Trump’s Russia connections, in a possible obstruction of justice.
Comey's testimony, based on detailed memos that he wrote after his meetings with Trump, will likely confirm some of the key details of Trump's decision to fire him amid the Russia inquiry. Says Politico: "It's a dangerous prospect for the White House, which has already seen the controversy impede Trump's agenda, sap his political capital and command inordinate attention from the West Wing."
In addition, Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, will testify on Wednesday about what the NSA knew of allegations that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials to sway the results of the 2016 election. After the FBI opened its investigation in July 2016, the NSA was tasked with surveilling the Russian officials involved.
Among Trump loyalists in Congress and right-wing "news" organizations, what you might call the deluded and paranoia-based community, the dream theme of this week is "unmasking,” the procedure by which senior officials can view the names of Americans who come under National Security Agency surveillance. "Unmasking" is also the name of the GOP strategy for changing the subject.
Trump’s supporters are hoping for revelations about how Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, or a new target, Samantha Powers, the former UN ambassador, “unmasked” classified information during the course of the investigation, supposedly for nefarious purposes. As Fox News framed the story: "Obama-Era Surveillance Focus in Russia Probe."
The Republicans' problem is that the last two narratives they have offered in response to the Russia investigations have failed to change the subject or stanch the stream of damaging revelations driving them.
The first GOP defense strategy focused on leaks. At a House Intelligence Committee hearing in March, every Republican focused on the leaks that had revealed the details of the multi-agency investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The leaks had exposed undisclosed contacts between Russian officials and national security adviser Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Leaks, the Republicans insisted, were criminal deeds and an intolerable danger to national security.
But committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) proceeded to fatally damage the “leaks” strategy when he tried to bolster a second line of defense offered by President Trump: the "Obama wiretaps."
In a March 4 tweet, Trump alleged that Obama had "tapp [sic] my phones" during the campaign, adding, "This is Nixon/Watergate." Nunes then paid a curious late-night visit to the White House and went public with the claim that he had seen classified NSA intercepts that confirmed the president's claim.
Not only was Nunes effectively doing what he had just denounced—leaking the contents of classified documents—but his statements about them were, in the words of the New Yorker, "wildly inaccurate."
A spokesman for Obama rejected the charge as "simply false." Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denied the charge. Rather more carefully, Comey said he had "no information" to support it.
What the documents seen by Nunes apparently showed was that NSA surveillance, requested by the FBI, had targeted Russian officials. This surveillance, authorized by the courts, had picked up conversations with members of the Trump entourage.
No, President Obama had not personally ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower. But the NSA had delivered wiretap information about Trump Tower conversations to the Obama White House. The facts could be twisted to support Trump's case, but not everyone cared to do so.
When even Vice President Mike Pence and press secretary Sean Spicer declined to endorse the Obama wiretap allegation, Trump dropped it. Republicans then moved to talking about "unmasking," the process by which Obama White House officials learned the details of the NSA surveillance.
The Republicans didn’t have a lot of choice. The firing of Comey left Capitol Hill Republicans unable to credibly resist the demands of Democrats for his testimony as well as subpoenas of Michael Flynn and his business records. To remain relevant, the Republicans had to add their own demands for “unmasking” documents to sustain their new narrative.
As Fox New reported:
The CIA, NSA and FBI were served with subpoenas Wednesday afternoon for documents relating to former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, ex-CIA director John Brennan and former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power. The subpoenas, signed by House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Ca., explicitly referenced the “unmasking” of U.S. citizens.
Trump weighed in to bolster the new narrative, without reference to his defunct wiretapping charges.
The big story is the "unmasking and surveillance" of people that took place during the Obama Administration.— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1496315121.0
One component of the new GOP strategy, it seems, is to target Power. As a former UN ambassador, she is another influential woman who served President Obama. Unable to drag Hillary Clinton into the current controversy and largely unsuccessful in impugning Susan Rice, the Republicans may be hoping Power can serve as the she-devil du jour.
Any number of male Obama advisers could be implicated in the Russia story with equal plausibility, but for right-wing media metrics, a bogeywoman seems most effective in mobilizing resentment, reaction and trolls.
There’s no evidence that Power is involved in the Russia investigation, not yet, at least. Watch as the National Review breathing heavily on the tiniest sparks generated by the House subpoena, hoping they might turn to flame:
Were there to be information indicating that Ms. Power was involved in unmasking American identities in intelligence reports, significant questions would be raised. As ambassador to the U.N., Power, a long-time Obama adviser, held a diplomatic position. She was not an intelligence analyst. It is not immediately clear why the U.N. ambassador would be involved in the disclosure of American identities in intelligence reports — after the agencies that collected and analyzed the intelligence had decided such identities should be masked.
The danger, once again, seems to be an ambitious woman who exceeds her proper role. Whether this will work politically remains to be seen.
Another Republican problem is that investigation of unmasking may well show that Obama officials acted appropriately.
One congressional intelligence source told CNN in April that the unmasking requests Rice made were "normal and appropriate" for officials who serve the president. Another source said there was "absolutely" no smoking gun in the reports, and urged the White House to declassify them. Former CIA director Michael Hayden defended Rice in a piece for The Hill.
Of course, Trump supporters and Republican congress members can claim these sources are biased. Those who believe that Obama personally wiretapped Trump Tower are not going to be dissuaded by the nuances of bureaucratic procedure.
The biggest problem for Republicans remains the facts of the investigation into Trump's Russia connections. When Nunes and other Republicans start walking through the unmasking process in televised hearings, they will revisit and reveal the emerging facts of the case and no doubt allege dirty deeds by Obama and his coven. But in the process, they will also unmask the names of the Trump family members and officials who were targeted for surveillance by the NSA, acting on requests from the FBI. They will be highlighting the details of the investigation that Trump sought—and seeks—to kill.
In other words, the coming hearings about the unmasking process will most likely yield more details about who in the Trump entourage was under criminal investigation and why. In the end, the most important misdeeds to be unmasked will be Trump’s.