Among the many GOP efforts to counterprogram the Russia investigation with thinly constructed conspiracy theories, one of the most persistent ones was the so-called unmasking of Michael Flynn.
We knew before that this theory had fallen apart. We now know just how spectacularly.
BuzzFeed News late Tuesday revealed a previously top-secret Justice Department report that details the findings of a review ordered by Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr. The report is a resounding rejection of the conspiracy theories, which were seeded and fertilized throughout Trump’s four years in office by Trump allies and GOP members of Congress.
Essentially, the idea was that the Obama officials might have sought the identity of Flynn in intelligence detailing his December 2016 calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and then leaked details for political purposes. (Flynn would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about these calls.) And there were valid questions early on about the Obama administration’s use of unmasking, as we wrote in 2017.
But the allegations almost always went beyond the known facts. And now the Justice Department report affirms that the allegations went way beyond what actually happened, too.
In his newly revealed report from September 2020, then-U.S. Attorney John Bash found “no unmasking requests made before Election Day that sought the identity of an apparent associate of the Trump campaign.” He said much the same about the transition period between Election Day 2016 and Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
“I … examined whether any senior officials had obtained General Flynn’s identity in connection with those communications through an unmasking request made during the transition period,” Bash wrote. “The answer is no.”
“According to the FBI, the Bureau did not disseminate an intelligence report discussing those communications and containing masked [U.S. person identity information] for General Flynn before President Trump’s inauguration,” Bash wrote. “For that reason, the public disclosure of the communications could not have resulted from an unmasking request.”
Bash said the FBI’s version “is consistent with my review of unmasking records, which did not reveal any unmasking request corresponding to a report discussing those communications.”
Bash’s big conclusion: “I have not found evidence that senior U.S. officials unmasked the identities of U.S. persons contained in intelligence reports for political purposes or other inappropriate reasons during the 2016 election period or the ensuing transition period.”
Flynn’s contact with Kislyak was first revealed by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on Jan. 12, 2017. In a telephone call, the two discussed sanctions during a conversation that might have run afoul of an unenforced federal law called the Logan Act. But speaking to the FBI later, Flynn denied having discussed sanctions. He pleaded guilty to that offense, but Barr’s Justice Department later made the extraordinary decision to try to have the case dismissed, and a lame-duck President Trump pardoned Flynn.
Bash’s report becomes public after we already knew his review had resulted in no criminal charges. The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Shane Harris reported in October 2020 that the review had quietly ended. Now we know it didn’t just come up shy of chargeable crimes; it also found virtually nothing to substantiate the various claims made by Trump and his allies.
And that’s pretty far from how this was often pitched on the right. Often, it wasn’t just “this seems fishy”; it was that “this is a proven scandal.”
After Ignatius’s report, a Bloomberg News columnist reported in April 2017 that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice had requested unmaskings in intelligence reports related to Trump’s campaign and transition period. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) declared it to be a “smoking gun” and claimed it amounted to “spying on Trump campaign.”
The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board went so far as to declare that “Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity.”
Rice didn’t do herself many favors by making some confusing comments about the matter. But even at the time, it was apparent that there were actually many reasons to believe this was business as usual for someone in her position.
The conspiracy theory simmered for a couple years, until Republican senators in the 2020 election year released a list of Obama administration officials who had allegedly requested Flynn’s unmasking — information that had been provided by then-acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist.
And again, many on the right, despite the dearth of any truly damning information, skipped right over any plausible alternative explanations for how Flynn’s name would’ve become known. They did so even as The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima broke the news that Flynn’s name had never been masked in the first place. They did so even as one of their own, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), asked why Grenell’s list conspicuously “did not contain a record showing who unmasked General Flynn’s identity for his phone call with Ambassador Kislyak.”
Conservative journalist John Solomon declared that a “crime is certain to have been committed.” Fox News’s Laura Ingraham wagered that such information had definitely been illegally leaked to the media. Paul again invoked the smoking gun: “We sort of have the smoking gun because we now have the declassified document with Joe Biden’s name on it.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) called it “bigger than Watergate.”
Bash’s report finds not only that there was no inappropriate unmasking, but also that the claims about all those Obama officials supposedly requesting unmaskings in Grenell’s declassified report were badly overcooked.
“Most critically, all but one of the requests that listed a senior official as an authorized recipient of General Flynn’s identity were made by an intelligence professional to prepare for a briefing of the official, not at the direction of the official,” Bash wrote, adding: “Nothing about the content suggests that officials were seeking derogatory information about General Flynn or were otherwise inappropriately targeting him.”
There was indeed something of a high temperature wafting over the supposed scandal, but rather than smoke, it was hot air.