The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a Flynn theory became central to the Trump reelection campaign

Then-national security adviser Michael Flynn speaks at a White House press briefing on Feb. 1, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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On the day Attorney General William P. Barr moved to drop criminal charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, again winning the adulation of President Trump, he was paid a special visit.

Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence and one of Trump’s most combative defenders, arrived last Thursday at the Justice Department’s headquarters clutching a brown leather briefcase. A Fox News camera was pre-positioned at the entrance on 10th Street NW, seemingly tipped off to record footage of the dramatic scene.

Grenell carried a list he had declassified of former Obama administration officials, including former vice president Joe Biden, who had sought to remove the cloak of anonymity from references in intelligence documents that turned out to be of Flynn. During a brief meeting with Barr, Grenell turned over the list of names, setting off a chain reaction that led Republican senators to publicly release it on Wednesday in what they claim is a monumental scandal.

The practice, known as unmasking, is commonplace in government. But in the case of Flynn, Trump and his allies used the list of names to claim Barack Obama, Biden and their appointees deliberately sought to sabotage the incoming Trump administration as part of a long-running conspiracy they have dubbed “Obamagate.”

“We sort of have the smoking gun because we now have the declassified document with Joe Biden’s name on it,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Thursday.

Biden’s campaign maintains that his actions were entirely appropriate and that the declassified document shows he followed normal intelligence procedures.

With Trump suffering political damage for his management of the coronavirus pandemic less than six months before the election, the president’s government appointees and allies in Congress are using their powers to generate a political storm aimed at engulfing Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and Obama, who polls show is the nation’s most popular political figure, making him a potent threat to Trump as a Biden surrogate.

Another objective is to rewrite the history of the Russia investigation as Trump has long sought, by casting Flynn as a martyr wronged by nefarious bureaucratic elites.

These efforts are being amplified by wall-to-wall coverage on Fox News Channel and elsewhere in conservative media, where this week Flynn coverage has rivaled and at times overshadowed news about the pandemic, even as the U.S. death toll from the novel coronavirus climbed past 85,000.

And in a remarkable turn Thursday, Trump urged Congress to call Obama to testify and even suggested those involved — including Biden and two longtime Trump antagonists, former FBI director James B. Comey and former CIA director John Brennan — go to prison.

“I’m talking with 50-year sentences,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network that aired Thursday. “It’s a disgrace what’s happened. This is the greatest political scam, hoax in the history of our country. . . . People should be going to jail for this stuff. ”

Trump added, “This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt — the whole thing was corrupt — and we caught them.”

Q&A: What is ‘unmasking,’ who does it and why

The newly revealed list shows that roughly three dozen government officials, including Biden, Brennan and Comey, may have received Flynn’s name in response to a request to reveal the identity of a U.S. person anonymously identified in an intelligence report.

Biden acknowledged attending a Jan. 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting with Obama and other officials at which the counterintelligence investigation into ­Flynn, then Trump’s designee for national security adviser, was discussed. But he said he knew nothing else about the topic when pressed Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“This is all about diversion,” Biden said, ascribing a motive to Trump. “This is a game this guy plays all the time. The country is in crisis. . . . He should stop trying to always divert attention from the real concerns of the American people.”

Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said the unmasking list underscores “the breadth and depth of concern across the American government — including among career officials” about Flynn’s interactions with officials from Russia and other foreign governments. Bates also accused Republicans of abusing their government powers “to act as arms of the Trump campaign.”

Trump has been distracted recently from managing the pandemic by fixating on Flynn and related matters, ranting in private about the Russia investigation, complaining about Comey and others in the FBI and making clear he wanted to talk in the run-up to the election about law enforcement targeting him, according to one adviser who spoke with the president last week.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has been focused extensively on the Flynn situation and has discussed it regularly with Trump, seeing it as vindication of his long-held skepticism toward the Russia probe, according to two senior administration officials.

Paul framed the unmasking as an opportunity to counter the Democratic-led impeachment of Trump on allegations he used his office to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden.

“What it seems to indicate is that high-ranking members, including Joe Biden, used the power of government to go after a political rival — and if that story line sounds familiar, well, we heard that sort of story line from the other side for over a year,” Paul said.

President Trump on May 7 praised the Justice Department for moving to drop the charges against his former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn. (Video: Reuters)

Trump has branded the saga “Obamagate,” a slogan he has tweeted or retweeted 14 times in the past five days. When asked Monday what crime he was accusing Obama of having committed, Trump could not say beyond “some terrible things happened.” Pressed a second time, Trump admonished a Washington Post reporter for asking.

“You know what the crime is,” Trump said. “The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”

“Obamagate” morphed in just one week from a fringe cause pushed on social media and podcasts by Trump allies — including former National Security Council staffer Sebastian Gorka and conservative legal commentators Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, among others — to a centerpiece of Trump’s reelection message.

In Trump’s political orbit, advisers had been quietly readying a renewed political war over the Russia probe for weeks, but the Justice Department’s move last Thursday to drop charges against Flynn flipped the switch.

“It’s a constitutional scandal because all of these people acting together at the Obama Justice Department, the FBI, and the CIA decided they were either going to prevent [Trump] from being elected,” diGenova said during an April 29 podcast. If that failed, diGenova said the Obama team was determined to “frame Trump and make him look like a Russian agent. Nothing gets bigger than that. This is a kind of perfidy and sedition that should never be tolerated.”

Flynn had pleaded in 2017 to lying to the FBI, admitting multiple times in court, under oath, that he was guilty of the crime. But as the months wore on, Flynn changed his legal teams and went on the attack against the Justice Department — alleging a bevy of misconduct, including that the agents who interviewed him had set him up to lie.

Barr, acting on the recommendation of Jeff Jensen, the U.S. attorney in St. Louis, agreed to ask a judge to dismiss the charges. The department’s legal rationale — essentially, that the FBI did not have good reason to interview Flynn in the first place and thus his misstatements were not relevant — was criticized by some legal observers as a contorted way of helping a Trump ally.

But the move won Barr praise from Trump and many on the right, who immediately sought to rewrite the narrative about Flynn — whom Trump said he had fired as national security chief because he had lied to Vice President Pence as well as to the FBI — and hailed him instead as a hero.

At the same time, other allies of the president were laboring to resurrect a long-dormant line of attack on the case: that intelligence officials in the Obama administration sought to remove the cloak of anonymity from references to Flynn in intelligence documents. 

Unmasking is common. Many intelligence documents are distributed with identities concealed to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens, though certain officials can ask that the protection be removed to help them better understand what they are looking at.

Still, Trump and his allies are attempting to turn it into a scandal.

“This is something Trump is very good at,” said Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. attorney in the Obama administration. “He takes things that are the normal course of business — like, for instance, people who are authorized for unmasking so they can make sense of intelligence data — and turn them into something suspicious. It becomes an us-versus-them moment.”

Grenell sent an email on May 3 about unmasking requests related to Flynn to the National Security Agency, which routinely receives and approves thousands of unmasking requests each year, including during Trump’s term. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the NSA director, responded the next day with a list of U.S. officials who may have received Flynn’s name following a request to unmask it in an intelligence report. 

There was no indication that the people who requested the unmasking knew that Flynn’s name would be the one revealed. Nor, the NSA advised, was it clear that every official on the list actually saw a report with Flynn’s name, or that they made the request themselves. Staffers often make unmasking requests on their bosses’ behalf, said people who have been involved in the process. 

The list showed that a broad range of officials obtained information about Flynn, from the CIA and the FBI to the Treasury Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations. Biden, or possibly a staff member acting on his behalf, made his unmasking request that revealed Flynn’s name on Jan. 12, 2017.

The document does not make clear why Biden or any other official had requested the unmasking in the first place, nor does it indicate that Flynn had engaged in communications that alerted intelligence officials to investigate his contacts with foreigners.

Last Thursday, when Grenell showed up at the Justice Department to deliver the list to Barr, the visit and Fox News’s apparent knowledge of it took some senior officials there aback. Grenell, who had been ambassador to Germany before assuming the intelligence post on a temporary basis, has long associated with some of Trump’s most vocal right-wing supporters and has earned plaudits from the president for his tweets attacking journalists.

Shortly after the visit, according to Justice Department officials, Grenell’s office seemed to be intimating to reporters that it would be up to Barr or his underlings to decide whether to release the document.

That, in the view of Justice Department leadership, was not accurate, since the department did not create the document and Grenell, not Barr, had declassified it.

“The information is not ours to release,” Justice Department spokesman Kerri Kupec said Tuesday on Fox News. She explained that Grenell’s office “owns that document. They declassified that document. So if they choose to put that out there, they’re more than welcome to do so.”

Ultimately, Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asked for the list and then released it on Wednesday.

Trump and his allies were prepared to pounce.

“Almost all of us who are involved or follow this have the facts of this case memorized,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, said during the Russia investigation. “So it’s natural to want to talk about the requests to unmask Flynn and really look at whether these people were engaged in a conspiracy to get Flynn out.”

Conservative media in turn have been abuzz this week with anger about Flynn’s treatment and criticism of U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who is overseeing the Flynn case and must approve the dismissal of the charges. Sullivan has appointed a retired federal judge to oppose the Justice Department’s position and explore whether Flynn should be held in contempt for lying to the court.

“The hatred for Donald J. Trump is as strong and intense as ever, and it is flavoring and directing and influencing what everybody in that town is saying and doing about virtually everything they’re saying and doing,” conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners this week.

Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett, whose books about the Russia probe have been touted by Trump, theorized Thursday on “Fox & Friends” that the Obama administration went after Flynn “with a vengeance” because he had been determined to “expose the Russia hoax.”

Two people involved in Trump’s reelection campaign said the effort was designed not only to weaken Biden, but also to tarnish Obama, who is likely to be a visible surrogate for Biden this fall. Obama had the highest approval rating, at 60 percent, of all living political figures tested in a recent Republican National Committee poll of voters in 17 battleground states. Biden and Pence tied for second at 47 percent.

Revealing the ways Trump hopes to benefit politically from the issue, Trump sent a fundraising plea to supporters on Thursday declaring, “Oh how the tables have turned.” After an investigation he dubbed “the Russian Collusion Delusion,” Trump wrote, the unmasking list shows “Sleepy Joe is the GUILTY one.”

Also on Thursday, Trump took to Twitter to urge Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to call Obama to testify about the matter.

“He knew EVERYTHING,” Trump wrote. “Do it @LindseyGrahamSC, just do it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talk!”

Graham responded with a statement saying the committee would begin hearings on this and related matters in June, but that he is “greatly concerned about the precedent that would be set by calling a former president for oversight.”

“Both presidents are welcome to come before the committee and share their concerns about each other,” Graham said. “If nothing else it would make for great television. However, I have great doubts about whether it would be wise for the country.”

Josh Dawsey, Tom Hamburger, Ellen Nakashima and Matt Viser contributed to this report.