Like many Washington scandals, this one started out as something completely different–the allegation that the Trump campaign had coordinated with Russia to manipulate the 2016 election. It was a meme that popped up immediately after Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidency, and had three main purposes: First, it would deflect attention away from how terrible a candidate Hillary Clinton was, and provide an explanation as to why she lost what was supposed to be easily-winnable election. Secondly, it would delegitimize Trump’s victory, and immediately force his administration to spend valuable time and political capital defending against a manufactured scandal. Finally–and most importantly–it would slow and hopefully halt the Trump agenda, which consisted largely of dismantling Barack Obama’s legacy.
The media eagerly pushed this narrative by publishing materials leaked from the intelligence community, purporting to show illicit contacts between Russian nationals and members of the Trump campiagn, and later his transition team. For some reason, however, the media and their sources never seemed to think that anybody would raise the question of how the intelligence community knew about these contacts in the first place. That is, until Donald Trump issued his now infamous tweet:
All of a sudden the narrative changed, and the media had to change gears and prove that Trump’s accusation was more than false–it was downright crazy, and yet another example of how he was unfit for office. But a funny thing happened on the way to impeachment. It turned out that while there was no evidence that Trump Tower had been bugged, there was evidence that Trump and his associates had indeed been monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies. The initial spin was that the monitoring had been incidental, and only happened because foreign nationals (i.e., Russians) who had contacts with the Trump team happened to be under routine surveillance.
But the leaks published by the media called out Trump associates by name. That information is supposed to be redacted to protect the identities of American citizens caught up in surveillance of foreigners–so how did it end up in the leaked materials?
Even though she initially denied knowing anything about Trump and his associates being monitored, she later admitted to Andrea Mitchell on NBC news that she did in fact request that their identities be unmasked. She denied, however, that she leaked that information to the media, employing the rather unusual double-negative, “I leaked nothing to nobody.” Make of that what you will, but it sounds to me like parsing words to give herself an escape hatch just in case she ever needs one.
“This is information about their everyday lives,” Rep. Peter King of New York, a member of the House Intelligence committee said. “Sort of like in a divorce case where lawyers are hired, investigators are hired just to find out what the other person is doing from morning until night and then you try to piece it together later on.”
This isn’t incidental surveillance. This is looking more and more like the Obama administration used the intelligence resources of the United States to spy on a political rival. Even Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is expressing openness to inviting Rice to testify before Congress on the matter. Wheather he really wants answers is debatable–but when the guy who has been running point on the “Russian hacked the election” story wants her in for questions, you know that the whole thing has gotten too big to ignore.
One thing’s for sure, though. This scandal has taken on a life of its own.