Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said today that the Committee’s investigation of Russian election interference and possible Trump campaign collusion with it is “back on track” after its controversial chairman, California Republican Devin Nunes, recused himself from the probe. Schiff’s remarks are a hopeful sign that the Committee will finally be able to constructively take on its oversight role.
But there are now new reasons to worry that, if anything, Republicans are even more determined to make sure it doesn’t turn up anything at all. That’s troubling, because Republicans may be successful at subverting the possibility of getting to the bottom of the scandal — which they are now clearly trying to do, by creating a distraction aimed at diverting public attention away from story and instead towards conspiracy theories involving the Obama administration.
Ryan Lizza has a new report in the New Yorker that reveals fresh details about the GOP game plan. The aim is to cast the Russia investigation as another Benghazi — by turning former National Security Advisor Susan Rice into the villain of the story, and fixing the focus of the hearings on her.
That bringing Rice into the investigation is still being contemplated is further evidence of the bad faith of the White House’s approach to this whole tale. All of Trump’s efforts to smear his predecessor, including accusing former President Obama of ordering surveillance of Trump Tower, and claiming that Rice had committed a crime, have been proven false — something Trump and his allies refuse to even acknowledge.
Trump instigated this maelstrom as a result of his March 4 tweet in which he falsely claimed that former president Obama had his Trump Tower “wires tapped.” But rather than retract his baseless tweet, Trump and his allies latched onto it, spinning implausible theories in an effort to drum up even a sliver of evidence for it after the fact. And it’s even worse than what has until know been publicly known: according to Lizza’s reporting, the White House “put out an all-points bulletin” to “find something that justifies the President’s crazy tweet about surveillance at Trump Tower.”
What followed was a sequence of events in which Nunes appeared to collaborate with the White House to review cherry-picked classified intelligence and leak it to the media to craft a false narrative that the Obama administration had somehow surveilled the Trump team. After that claim was confirmed to be false by intelligence officials, the White House moved on to the Rice deflection: arguing that Rice, as Obama’s National Security Advisor, had reviewed the intercepts of phone calls between Russian government officials and requested that the identities of the Americans subject to what is known as “incidental collection” be “unmasked.”
Trump himself even joined the fray, asserting — without any evidence — that Rice had committed a crime. But this, again, has been proven false. As CNN reported last week, both Democrats and Republicans who reviewed the relevant classified documents at the National Security Agency headquarters agreed that they contained no evidence of wrongdoing by Obama administration officials, including Rice. Intelligence sources emphasized to CNN that Rice’s requests were “normal and appropriate” and there was nothing in the documents substantiating Trump’s baseless charge that Rice done anything wrong, much less committed a crime.
Nunes’ clumsy handling of the affair, of course, is what led to his recusal from the Committee’s Russia investigation. But that hasn’t apparently diminished Republican interest in keeping Rice front and center. Lizza reports: “Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are still preparing to focus on Obama’s national-security team, rather than on Vladimir Putin’s.” Rice, he notes, is the first person on their witness list.
Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican who is stepping into Nunes’ role as chair for the Russia investigation, has pledged to stay focused on the subject of the investigation — Russian meddling in the election and any Trump campaign collusion with that effort. But his past statements are concerning. At the Committee’s first open hearing on the matter last month, at which FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating Russian election interference and collusion with the Trump campaign, Conaway expressed doubts about whether the Russian interference was intended to help Trump, despite the fact that the intelligence community has determined that this is the case.
One thing to watch for now is the role the conservative media — allied with Trump — will likely play in shifting the focus to Rice. Primed by another spurious, politicized GOP investigation involving Rice (Benghazi), conservative pundits are eager to portray Rice as a devious figure in this new narrative. For example, Sharyl Attkisson of the Sinclair Broadcast Group prefaced a segment this week with this teaser:
Hearings are being planned to find out more about whether Obama political officials obtained intelligence to use against Trump associates. News reports recently alleged President Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice asked to see names of U.S. citizens captured incidentally in surveillance, names normally strictly masked for privacy reasons.
That cued up Attkisson’s interview of South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, who pronounced himself “uncomfortable” with what Rice had done. He pledged there would be a Senate hearing at which he would ask intelligence community officials whether Rice had asked for any “unmasking” — even though, as noted above, a bipartisan group from the House determined that this was in the ordinary course of Rice’s job.
It’s reassuring that a bipartisan group of House members has acknowledged they reviewed the NSA materials and concluded that Rice had done nothing wrong. But it now looks as if the House Intelligence Committee will try to embroil Rice in the Russia hearings, anyway. If so, it will show just how far the Committee’s Republicans are willing to go to prop up Trump’s lies — and to distract from efforts to get to the bottom of Russian meddling, as well as any possible Trump campaign collusion with it.