The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the big story ‘unmasking’ or Trump-Russia connections? Congress can’t decide.

This post, originally published Thursday, has been updated with the latest news.

To hear President Trump and some House Republicans tell it, Congress's primary focus in its Russia investigation should be to find out who in the intelligence community is leaking classified information about Russia to the press.

To hear Democrats tell it, that's a fake out. Congress's primary focus in its Russia investigation should be to find out if Trump's campaign helped Russia meddle in the U.S. election, and anything else is a distraction.

There's no rule that says Congress has to ONLY investigate leaks, or ONLY Trump officials' communications with Russia.

But investigators do have to prioritize what to dig into, and Congress can't seem to agree on whether that should be leaks or Trump communications with Russia.

The result: Both issues get politicized. (Side note: What isn't these days?). Especially the question of leaks and unmasking. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that members of the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee requested spy agencies unmask U.S. people or organizations, despite the fact Trump and Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) have criticized Obama officials' practice of unmasking.

Let's get a better understanding of what unmasking means — and how prioritizing it in the Russia investigation could backfire for lawmakers.

What is “unmasking”? According to our guide on how to talk like a spy (which has been coming in very handy lately), “unmasking” is when the identity of a U.S. citizen caught up in surveillance is revealed, either publicly or among intelligence agencies. Only about 20 people in the whole security apparatus know the person's true identity when they're not unmasked.

How to talk like a spy (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Why Congress may care about it: Republicans want to pinpoint how the public knows so much about conversations Trump's campaign officials had with Russians.

The president and his campaign aren't chatting with the media about this. So who is? One option: U.S. intelligence officials who have been spying on Russians — and thus know they've talked to people associated with Trump— called the media up to tell them about it.

But not every U.S. spy would know which U.S. person was talking to the Russian ambassador. Remember, the identity of any U.S. citizen caught up in surveillance is supposed to be secret to all but a few dozen people.

The classic example of this is Trump's now-fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who discussed sanctions with Russia's ambassador in December.

In February, The Washington Post reported about Flynn's conversations, and a few days later, Trump fired Flynn for misleading the vice president about them. A month later, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee demanded to know how Flynn's name got out in the first place.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) suggested the leaks may have been politically motivated to weaken the Trump administration.

Another example: President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, requested the unmasking of Trump campaign officials, though she denies it was for any political purpose.

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

How talk of unmasking is testing Congress: Democrats think the focus on leaks is politically motivated to benefit the Trump administration.  As a result, the House committee leading one of Congress's Russia investigations can't seem to agree on who it should even talk to.

On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee issued seven subpoenas related to its investigation into Russia.

On Thursday, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), went on MSNBC and CNN to say he was caught off guard by three of those subpoenas, all related to leaks.

Schiff accused the committee's chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), of subpoenaing three intelligence agencies to talk about leaks without running it by the committee first.

“These were sent out unilaterally by the chairman,” Schiff said on MSNBC, “and they are part of the White House's desire to shift the attention away from the Russia probe and onto the attention of unmasking.”

(Another problem with the subpoenas, Schiff said: Nunes technically recused himself from the Russia investigation because he's under an ethics investigation for potentially misusing classified information.)

Nunes's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But he tweeted this:

How this focus on unmasking could backfire on Congress: At least one recent poll suggests the public is split on whether Congress should prioritize leaks vs. the Trump campaign's Russia communications.

That predictably breaks down along partisan lines: 80 percent of Republicans said leaks matter more to them and 70 percent of Democrats said Trump associates' communications matter more.

But that doesn't mean Republican voters want to see Congress forget about Russia. The same poll shows 59 percent of Americans think that Trump's campaign had improper communications with Russia.

All that to say that Republicans must walk a tricky line here. If they double down on leaks, they're appeasing their base and the president. But they also risk appearing to ignore something a majority of Americans are concerned about: the broader question of Russian influence in the U.S. election.

One final way this could backfire: Most Americans' partisan views about this Russia investigation are already set. But this squabbling over unmasking also risks undermining Americans' faith not just in one party but in Congress as a whole.

Expectations were already low. An April NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 73 percent of Americans say they prefer an independent investigation over Congress, and just 39 percent said they had “some” or a “great deal” of confidence in Congress to conduct a fair and impartial investigation.

Congress's schizophrenia about what to focus its Russia investigation on is just one more reason for Americans not to give their lawmakers the benefit of the doubt. And that's a reaction lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can agree is problematic.