The Glaring Inconsistency Behind the Russiagate Conspiracy Theory

Trump used to say Obama “did nothing” about Russian interference. Now he’s telling a different story.

If only we had a way to go back in time and check out what Trump and his enablers were saying in the past about former President Obama and his administration’s investigation of Russiagate. Oh wait …we do. One year ago, this is what the president was tweeting.

On the same day, the Trump campaign put out a video titled “Obama knew.”

In the latter half of that video, you’ll see several Democrats, including Representative Adam Schiff, criticizing the Obama administration for not doing enough in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election. That has pretty much been the consensus among Democrats and the mainstream media.

For example, the article in which David Ignatius first reported on the telephone call between Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Kislyak was titled, “Why Did Obama Dawdle on Russian Hacking?” An exhaustive report from Washington Post reporters documenting the Obama administration’s response sparked a lot of the same criticism, with this being the quote that was cited most often.

“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” said a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia. “I feel like we sort of choked.”

Those critiques were echoed in the bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee focused on the Obama administration’s response to Russian meddling. They found that “the U.S. government was not well postured to counter Russian election interference activity.” In reaching that conclusion, they note things like concern over the potential for escalation by Russia as well as the highly politicized moment of a presidential campaign in which one candidate (Donald Trump) was already making accusations about a “rigged election.”

In the aftermath of Attorney General Barr’s decision to drop the charges against Michael Flynn, the selective release of classified materials by DNI Grenell, and the explosion of right-wing media focus on “Obamagate,” that consensus has been eliminated from the discussion in favor of painting a caricature of the Obama administration gone rogue in an attempt to promulgate the “hoax” of Russiagate.

But in the events that Trump and his enablers bring up to promote “Obamagate,” what you hear is an administration struggling with the unprecedented situation in which they found themselves. On the one hand, a foreign adversary was in the midst of interfering in a presidential election on behalf of one of the candidates. At the same time, they were seeing evidence that some of that candidate’s campaign team might have been involved in those efforts. There was no playbook for how to handle a situation like that, which meant that there were lots of discussions and some disagreements about how to proceed.

The case of Michael Flynn is a perfect example. As you recall, he was engaged in some very troubling activities during his tenure as Trump’s primary advisor on foreign policy. While the investigation into those activities was underway, Obama and his team were concerned about briefing him in a way that would normally happen with an incoming administration.

That was the topic of a brief meeting that was held on January 5, 2017, at the request of President Obama. Here is how National Security Advisor Susan Rice documented that discussion.

On January 5, following a briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election, President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office.  Vice President Biden and I were also present.

President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities “by the book.” The President stressed that he is not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective.  He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book.

From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.

The President asked Comey to inform him if anything changes in the next few weeks that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team.  Comey said he would.

Because further testimony about that meeting from Sally Yates indicates that it was during that meeting that she learned about the phone call between Flynn and the Russian ambassador, it is now being spun to suggest that Obama was directing the investigation into Flynn—and Biden was in on it.

Whether to brief Trump on matters related to the investigation was also the source of disagreement between Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord and the FBI, which she says was twisted by Barr.

The potential for blackmail of Mr. Flynn by the Russians is what the former Justice Department leadership, including me, thought needed to be conveyed to the incoming White House. After all, Mr. Flynn was set to become the national security adviser, and it was untenable that Russia—which the intelligence community had just assessed had sought to interfere in the U.S. presidential election—might have leverage over him.

This is where the F.B.I. disagreed with the Justice Department’s preferred approach. The F.B.I. wasn’t ready to reveal this information to the incoming administration right away, preferring to keep investigating, not only as part of its counterintelligence investigation but also possibly as a criminal investigation.

Those disagreements came to a head when, on January 24, 2017, the FBI moved forward to interview Flynn and two days later, Yates warned Trump’s White House counsel of the potential for Russia to blackmail him based on his lies, not only to the FBI but to Pence and others in the White House.

Over and over again, what we’re seeing is that Trump and his enablers are attempting to exploit moments where officials in the Obama administration struggled to determine how to proceed in an unprecedented situation. In addition to these examples, that is true of the disagreement about whether to brief Trump on the Steele dossier as well as the discussion between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page about the so-called “insurance policy.”

While Trump’s suggestion that Obama “did nothing” about Russia is just one more lie from this president, the claims from his campaign last year at least come a bit closer to the truth than the current nonsense about Obamagate. The previous administration was slow to react and oftentimes riddled with dilemmas about how to proceed in the middle of an investigation that implicated the incoming president.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.