That’s the question that needs answering. Everything else is a distraction.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”
Every day seems to bring fresh news in the Kremlin-gate scandal about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Just a few highlights from the past week:
—CBS News reports that the FBI is investigating whether “Trump campaign representatives had a role in helping Russian intelligence as it carried out cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee” as far back as March 2016.
—The BBC reports that one of the key allegations in the dossier on links between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin compiled by a former British intelligence officer has been “verified.”
—NBC News reports that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has at least 15 bank accounts in Cyprus and bought homes in New York with cash, has been investigated for money laundering.
—USA Today reports that “the president and his companies have been linked to at least 10 wealthy former Soviet businessmen with alleged ties to criminal organizations or money laundering.”
—And the Wall Street Journal reports that Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, who did not come clean on his initial financial disclosure form about all of his income from Russian entities, is now offering to testify in return for immunity. The latter development is particularly ominous. As Trump himself said last year, “If you’re not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for?”
All of this, of course, comes on top of previous revelations, such as an unfairly overlooked New York Times report from early March that “American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump.… Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.”
The big question is whether Trump and his aides participated in the Russian hack-and-leak campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election in his favor. Or was Trump just an unwitting beneficiary of Russian meddling? The FBI is now seeking answers in an unprecedented investigation of a sitting president’s ties to a hostile foreign power.
Rather than facilitate the inquiry, Trump and his followers have launched a slash-and-burn campaign to shift the focus away from him and onto his predecessor, former President Barack Obama. Trump launched this counteroffensive in earnest on March 4 when, following revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had lied under oath about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, he tweeted out of the blue that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” “Bad (or sick) guy,” he said of Obama, comparing him to “Nixon/Watergate.”
This vile accusation, which was later extended to include Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency, has been refuted by Trump’s own FBI and NSA directors. But that is no obstacle for Trump, who keeps brazenly repeating this falsehood. On April 1, for example — and not as an April Fools’ joke — the president tweeted: “When will Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd and @NBCNews start talking about the Obama SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL and stop with the Fake Trump/Russia story?”
Not even the president’s most determined defenders can bring themselves to claim, as Trump does, that Obama wiretapped him in defiance of the law. So they have been making a lesser, if still questionable, claim — that Trump and/or his aides were caught conversing with foreign officials who were legitimate targets of wiretapping and that intelligence officials in the Obama administration failed to do enough to “mask” the identity of the Trumpites in classified transcripts.
It is in furtherance of this dubious storyline that Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former member of the Trump transition team, has turned himself into a Washington laughingstock. Nunes made a big production of rushing to the White House on March 21 to receive highly classified information about the supposed “unmasking” of Trump associates in the course of “incidental” wiretapping. The next day, he held a press conference and then went back to the White House to breathlessly share his findings — “if they don’t have it, they need to see it,” he said. Nunes told House Speaker Paul Ryan that his source was a “whistleblower-type person,” as if he were the second coming of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. To Eli Lake of Bloomberg View, he said his source was an intelligence official, not a White House aide.
That cover story did not last long, however, before the New York Times and Washington Post revealed that Nunes’s actual sources were a trio of Trump appointees: Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence; Michael Ellis, a White House lawyer who had previously worked for Nunes; and John Eisenberg, the top lawyer at the National Security Council. In other words, Nunes was not uncovering information from whistleblowers; he was being cynically used as a middleman by the White House to launder top-secret information for public release, namely transcripts of wiretaps.
This raises that old bit of Washington wisdom about “the cover-up being worse than the crime.” Even if Nunes’s allegations are accurate, and if Obama administration officials — Eli Lake’s latest reporting fingers former National Security Advisor Susan Rice — requested the “unmasking” of the anonymized identities of Trump aides in surveillance transcripts, it is far from clear that they did anything wrong. According to Robert Deitz, the former general counsel at the National Security Agency, it’s permissible for senior officials such as the national security advisor to “unmask” Americans caught in wiretaps if there is a crime involved or if their identities are necessary to make sense of the transcript. Given all of the Trumpites’ suspicious links to Russia (see above for only a few examples) at a time when Russia was interfering in the U.S. election on Trump’s behalf, there was certainly good cause for further investigation. Even if some improper “unmasking” occurred, that still doesn’t remotely prove Trump’s allegation that Obama was guilty of wiretapping him. These revelations might raise questions about whether Obama appointees broke the law by leaking top-secret information — but they also certainly now raise questions about Trump aides doing the same.
Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who is now at the Century Foundation, suggests that this disclosure was indeed illegal — as was, in fairness, the February leak of information from a wiretap of the Russian ambassador showing that Flynn had lied about their conversations. If he had an iota of intellectual consistency (which, of course, he does not), Trump should agree. After all, he is on record fulminating against “lowlife leakers” spilling government secrets. There are few documents more secret than raw transcripts of national security wiretaps.
What was young Cohen-Watnick, a 30-year-old favorite of Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner whom National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster tried and failed to fire, doing ransacking this supersensitive database? Gellman speculates that he was trying not only to buttress Trump’s smears against Obama but also to monitor the status of the FBI investigation into Kremlin-gate. If so, was he acting on his own initiative, or did someone higher up, e.g., Bannon or Kushner, authorize an attempt to use top-secret intelligence for political purposes?
Add this to the long list of questions that Kremlin-gate investigators will have to address. The only thing we know for certain is that no credible answers will come from the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes has destroyed its integrity — not only with his Inspector Clouseau antics but also by canceling the planned testimony of former acting Attorney General Sally Yates at White House instigation. How he can remain in his post after this shameful toadying to the subject of the committee’s investigation is a mystery.
What’s truly depressing is the extent to which Trump’s strategy of obfuscation and deflection may be working. He has managed to convince 74 percent of Republicans that he was indeed surveilled by Obama in spite of the total lack of evidence to support this grave charge. And he has shifted the national conversation from the real issue — the Russian role in influencing America’s presidential election, an attack on our democratic process that may have been conducted with the winning campaign’s cooperation — to the imaginary Obama “SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL” and lesser controversies involving classified leaks.
As he showed during the campaign, Trump is a master at uttering so many spurious statements so quickly that it is impossible for the public to sort out what’s really going on. He may not convince many people outside of blind partisans to believe in his “alternative facts,” but by making so many baseless accusations, he confuses the whole issue and causes normal people of goodwill to throw up their hands in despair. Let us hope that does not happen in this case. We desperately need to get the whole story on Kremlin interference lest the Russians continue manipulating our politics in the future — as they are now doing in France, Germany, Canada, and Ukraine, among other countries.
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