President Trump’s wild accusation and the right-wing media’s eagerness to support the claims of the Trump White House, working in cahoots with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), that there was nefarious “unmasking” of Trump associates picked up in surveillance of Russian officials has proved to be a colossal flop. Nunes wound up discrediting himself and implicating White House staffers in a half-baked scheme to deflect attention from the president.

Right-wing outlets (from Fox News to Breitbart to the New York Post) took the bait from Nunes and his associates, dragging Susan Rice into the matter — without evidence of a crime. Indeed, no evidence of impropriety exists and no evidence ties Rice to the leaking of Michael T. Flynn’s name. Given that the White House does not want to release the documents shared with Nunes that allegedly provide the basis for its tale, we can surmise that Nunes really had no evidence of much of anything.

With allegations targeting former Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice, here's what you need to know about "unmasking" U.S. persons. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The blatant effort to confuse and distract from the biggest political scandal of our lifetimes — Russian efforts to manipulate our election process and potential coordination with the campaign of the beneficiary of Russia’s “active measures” — does not come as any surprise. However, certain right-wing media outlets’ willingness to echo Trump’s defamatory misdirection tactics remains as distressing as ever. (It was just this sort of echo chamber effect that Russia used during the campaign to help Trump, as Clint Watts recently explained.) Chin-stroking pundits were obliged to say, “Well, both these things are important” (as if the Rice narrative has a factual basis), and the damage thereby done. A serious investigation with extensive factual support becomes no more credible than Trump’s latest tweet.

The episode highlights a worrisome development with regard to our intelligence community. Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes of explain we run the risk of undoing the “grand bargain” (i.e. intelligence services get robust powers in exchange for equally robust oversight) that allows our intelligence community to operate within a democratic government. They explain:

Today’s crisis is sparked by allegations, both by President Trump and by some House Republicans, of political misuse of the intelligence community by the Obama administration. Whether the allegations are entirely false or turn out to have elements of truth, they put the intelligence community in the cross-hairs, since some of the institutions that are supposed to be key legitimators are now functioning as delegitimators. After all, entirely appropriate investigations of counterintelligence can easily look like inappropriate political meddling, and if the President and the House Intelligence Committee chairman are not merely not defending the intelligence community but are actively raising questions about its integrity, the bargain itself risks unraveling.

And seen in this light, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) stubborn insistence on standing behind Nunes to perpetuate the assault on the integrity of the investigative process stands out as nothing less than unconscionable. Once again, Ryan’s partisanship has undermined his credibility.

Goldsmith and Wittes point out that “if the intelligence community had been in any way targeting the Trump team last year for collection, that should be bad news for the Trump team, since it would imply, in normal circumstances, wrongdoing. Indeed, the whole point of the narrative appears to be to discredit the Russia investigation (or some elements of it) by shifting the story away from Trump connections to the Russian wrongdoing to alleged wrongdoing in the investigation of the Russia matter.” They continue, “This appears to be Trump’s larger aim: To muddle the legitimacy of the intelligence community, and of FISA as a tool in this context, all with the aim of delegitimizing the Russia investigation and, perhaps, of delegitimizing broader internal executive branch checks on the presidency.”

The episode underscores the degree to which we are vulnerable when those in positions of authority — Nunes, Trump, Ryan, the leakers — abuse their trust and turn the most consequential national security investigation of our lifetimes into a circus. Goldsmith and Wittes reiterate that “if the President and the House Intelligence Committee Chairman can discredit an investigation of foreign interference in an American election and collusion with that effort by the president’s campaign by alleging improper political misuse of the intelligence authorities by the prior administration, if leaking FISA intercepts is an accepted way to go after a political opponent, and if nobody can credibly say who’s telling the truth and who’s lying, then the grand bargain has truly failed, with consequences that are hard to fathom.” We should hope that the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee — as well as the House Intelligence Committee probe minus Nunes — have the skill and integrity to produce a result in which we can all have confidence.