Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign began as a story of a hostile adversary attempting to tamper with an American election. It soon expanded into troubling questions about possible collusion between associates of President Trump’s campaign and the Russians. Today it has moved directly into the White House.
That this has become, in addition to everything else, a White House story is due to a self-inflicted wound, created by President Trump with his tweets accusing then-President Barack Obama of (illegally) ordering a wiretap of Trump Tower. Attempts to prove that allegation, or at least muddy what has been repeatedly debunked, now have snared others and the questions today include what did White House officials do and why did they do it?
It is still too early draw conclusions about where all these threads will lead. That’s true about long-standing questions of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians — still not proven — as well as the new question about how and why White House officials used House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to try to cast doubt on those who doubted Trump’s tweets about Obama.
It is not too early, however, to know that the investigations are months and months away from completion. And what is now known has not only deeply compromised the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the Russia affair, but also raised questions that White House officials seem unable or unwilling to answer — but which investigators will eventually have to answer.
Added to all that is the statement from the attorney for former national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying that his client has a story to tell and is prepared to testify before investigative panels in exchange for immunity, even if investigators are not prepared to make such a deal. The president applauded Flynn in a Friday morning tweet and described the investigations as a witch hunt by Democrats and the media to obscure or diminish his victory in the election. That assertion is belied by the seriousness of the machinery that is moving forward at the FBI and on Capitol Hill.
The Russia issue will remain a cloud over the White House until those investigations are complete. White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who is in the unenviable position of having to publicly defend his boss’s wildest statements, has said the White House is not consumed by these inquiries, but the president keeps undercutting that assertion with his tweets. The tweets about Obama damaged his credibility, and his aides have damaged their own in attempting to explain his accusations.
The Nunes episode illustrates the compounding nature of the problem. When Nunes rushed to the White House more than a week ago to brief the president on what he said was sensitive new information — not bearing on the Russia investigation — that showed that Trump officials had been caught up incidentally in surveillance and perhaps unmasked illegally, he set off a chain of events that continues to reverberate.
At the time, Spicer was asked whether anyone in the White House had been involved in supplying the intelligence information to Nunes. “I don’t know why he would come up to brief the president on something we gave him,” Spicer said. He added, “I’m not aware of it, but it really doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Now it is the odor of apparent complicity that the White House is smelling. For days, no one at the White House would answer the easily answerable question of who had cleared Nunes into the White House compound to view sensitive intelligence information. Then on Thursday, shortly before Spicer’s briefing, the New York Times reported that two White House officials have been involved in helping to provide Nunes with the information. The Washington Post later named a third person who was involved in handling the material.
At his briefing, before taking any questions about the Times’s revelations, Spicer announced that the White House had invited the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees to come to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to look at some new information bearing on the question of whether “information collected on U.S. individuals was mishandled and leaked” that had been found “in the ordinary course of business.” He offered no answers about possible White House involvement with Nunes.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee asked the obvious question in response to Thursday’s revelations. If members of the National Security Council staff had unearthed material in the normal course of business bearing on the handling of intelligence material, why was it left to Nunes to brief the president? As Schiff put it, “Why all the cloak-and-dagger stuff?”
There are other curious aspects to the most recent revelations. Ezra Cohen is the National Security Council staff person who was involved in helping Nunes gain access to the intelligence information. Cohen was brought to the National Security staff by Flynn and named to the sensitive position of senior director for intelligence.
According to multiple reports, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who replaced Flynn as national security adviser, sought to move Cohen out of his position. Cohen appealed to White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and chief strategist and senior counselor Stephen K. Bannon and remained in place. Keeping Cohen in his post would have been a favor to Cohen and thus also to Flynn.
Keeping Flynn happy could be important to Trump. The retired lieutenant general was forced to resign as national security adviser in February after misleading Vice President Pence about the nature of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. Initial reports about his departure said that Flynn had made the decision to step down voluntarily. The next day, the story changed: Trump had lost confidence in Flynn and asked for the resignation.
Flynn was unhappy with that characterization and made his feelings known to the White House, according to one knowledgeable official. A day later, the president offered kind words for Flynn in public, calling him “a wonderful man” who had been “treated very, very unfairly” by the media. Once again on Friday, the president came to Flynn’s defense as the investigation deepens.
Trump’s original tweets accusing Obama of wiretapping seemed designed to create a diversion from the main investigation into what happened during the election, and they certainly have done that. But he unintentionally set the White House on a path that has led to this moment.
Confronted by flat-out denials from FBI Director James B. Comey and key congressional leaders that Obama had ordered wiretapping, White House officials first sought to redefine the words in the president’s tweets to suggest he only meant some kind of surveillance. Then Nunes entered the picture, acting as an ally of the president, to suggest something like that had taken place, though neither he nor anyone at the White House has described exactly what information he viewed.
It’s important to remember that the questions about what White House officials did and why remain secondary to the larger issue of Russia’s interference and whether Trump associates were involved. That’s the principal focus of the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is moving forward with its work despite all the controversy involving the House committee and the White House.
But the cascade of questions for the White House are important and legitimate. Having created this new front in the expanding controversy, the president and his aides will now be forced to endure continued and justifiable scrutiny over what they have done to add to the mystery.