In Pushing the Susan Rice Story, Did the Trump Administration Just Out Themselves?

As I demonstrated last week with a timeline, Trump’s tweet on March 4th claiming that Obama had wiretapped him during the election was a result of his fury over the outing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about meeting with the Russian ambassador. But the tweet itself set off a series of attempts by the White House to come up with a justification for the loaded accusation against Trump’s predecessor.

First of all, the administration suggested that perhaps the Obama administration had gotten a FISA warrant to spy on Trump. Next, Sean Spicer floated Judge Napolitano’s idea that the U.S. had used the British intelligence services to do it for them. Both of those claims were debunked by FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers at the first House Intelligence Committee hearing.

As I discussed previously, we’ve now descended down the rabbit hole and the talk is all about whether or not Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice requested the unmasking of Trump and/or his associates, whose communications with foreign targets had been collected incidentally. That story exploded on the scene in a report by Eli Lake.

It was important to note from that story that it was based on information from  Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was brought to the White House by Michael Flynn. Cohen-Watnick is also the guy who summoned Rep. Devin Nunes to a clandestine meeting at the White House immediately following the first House Intelligence Committee hearing to review “evidence” that the Obama administration had surveilled Trump.

All of that is by way of background to an interesting nugget contained in this AP story.

The U.S. official said Rice’s Trump-related requests were discovered as part of a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” – the intelligence community’s term for revealing Americans’ identities that would otherwise be hidden in classified reports…

The unmasking review was led by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC’s senior director of intelligence. Cohen-Watnick has clashed with the CIA and was on the verge of being moved out of his job until Trump political advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner stepped in to keep him in the role.

Cohen-Watnick raised his findings about Rice with the White House counsel’s office, according to the official. The counsel’s office ordered him to stand down because the lawyers did not want the White House to be running an independent investigation into the prior administration.

Still, the White House has appeared to find other ways to promote the idea that Obama officials were conducting improper surveillance of Trump’s team.

So Cohen-Watnick was reviewing unmasking requests by the Obama administration (at Michael Flynn’s request?) and, when he took his findings to the White House counsel’s office, was told to cease and desist. The lawyers knew that this could spell legal trouble for the Trump administration — currently under investigation by the FBI. And yet someone decided to do an end-around that legal advice by leaking the information to the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes.

All of that makes the question posed by Barton Gellman very prescient.

…why would a White House lawyer [Michael Ellis] and the top White House intelligence adviser [Ezra Cohen-Watnick] be requesting copies of these surveillance reports in the first place?…There is no chance that the FBI would brief them about the substance or progress of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government. Were the president’s men using the surveillance assets of the U.S. government to track the FBI investigation from the outside?

We’re not seeing evidence (yet) that they were tracking the FBI investigation. But it sure looks like Flynn assigned Cohen-Watnick the task of reviewing intelligence reports that led to the discovery of his phone calls with the Russian ambassador.

I would remind you that Michael Flynn was initially fired by the Obama administration in 2014 for his erratic management style and was known there for his promotion of “Flynn facts” (i.e., lies and crazy conspiracy theories). He also bragged to Dana Priest about breaking rules he thought were stupid. It shouldn’t surprise us that his protege didn’t take kindly to orders from the White House counsel’s office to cease and desist.

The intervention by Bannon and Kushner to save Cohen-Watnick’s job takes on a whole new meaning in light of this information. It sure looks like they knew exactly what he was up to at the time.

Anything Susan Rice might have done appears to be in keeping with the law and her job as national security advisor. But by pushing this story, the Trump administration might have just outed themselves as the ones who are complicit.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.