Conservatives — even some who have been skeptical of Trump's claim that the Obama administration surveilled him — saw it as highly suspicious. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called it a “smoking gun,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) labeled Rice “Typhoid Mary,” and the Wall Street Journal's editorial board issued a blistering op-ed on Tuesday morning:
All this is highly unusual — and troubling. Unmasking does occur, but it is typically done by intelligence or law-enforcement officials engaged in anti-terror or espionage investigations. Ms. Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity.
Former national security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the requests as normal and said they were justified by the need for the president’s top security adviser to understand the context of reports sent to her by the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Here's what we can say about the Rice situation at this point.
There is precisely zero evidence that Rice used this information — assuming the reports are true — for anything other than her own official purposes or did anything unholy. Unmasking is not leaking, and as our own Karen DeYoung notes, Rice couldn't have names unmasked without permission from the relevant intelligence agency — a system in place to prevent political abuses.
And as President Barack Obama's national security adviser, she could very well have had legitimate reasons to ask to unmask individuals in these intelligence reports, which are part of her job. The Journal's claim that “Ms. Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity” certainly takes some logical liberties, given that we don't even know the subject of the reports.
Rice denied wrongdoing Tuesday to MSNBC. "The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes; that's absolutely false," she said. adding: "I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have and never would."
Second — and importantly — there is also still no evidence that any surveillance was targeted at Trump, as he has alleged in tweets. This doesn't speak to that, either.
Here was Rice's response: “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”
If Rice had indeed unmasked Trump associates' identities in these foreign surveillance reports, that response wouldn't quite make sense. We don't know precisely the question she was asked due to how the interview was edited, but PBS host Judy Woodruff led into Rice's comment by saying she asked Rice about Nunes's disclosure that Trump associates “may have been swept up in surveillance of foreigners at the end of the Obama administration.”
In the first question, PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff asked Rice about Nunes’ disclosure that Trump “and the people around him may have been caught up in surveillance of foreign individuals and that their identities may have been disclosed. Do you know anything about this?” Woodruff added.
And Rice herself says her denial was referring to specific reports -- not Nunes's general disclosure about Trump and his associates being caught up in surveillance.
And what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Rice would do well to square her comments two weeks ago with what has been reported — even if it's not the smoking gun that Paul wishes it were.