Susan Rice, President Obama's final national security adviser, has all of a sudden become public enemy No. 1 in Trumpworld.
A series of recent reports — published in Fox News, Bloomberg View, and elsewhere — have claimed that Rice asked the intelligence community to provide the names of Trump transition officials who had been caught speaking to foreigners who were under surveillance by US spies. Typically these names are redacted in transcripts, but high-level US officials can request them on occasion — a process called "unmasking."
The intercepts in question were first revealed to the public by Rep. Devin Nunes in late March, in what's now widely seen as an attempt to deflect blame away from President Trump's baseless claim that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. And indeed, many in the conservative media are treating the Rice reports as vindicating the president.
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"She participated in the monitoring of the Trump campaign," Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his Monday night show. "Let's drop the euphemisms: Monitoring the communications of your political opponents and then trampling measures designed to protect their identities [is] spying."
This is incorrect: Revealing the name of transition officials who were caught up in legal wiretaps of foreigners is not the same thing as illegally spying on the Trump campaign. But that has not stopped the Susan Rice story from becoming the dominant story on the American right.
On Monday, Sen. Rand Paul called for Rice to testify under oath, speculating that Obama might have ordered her to unmask Trump officials for unspecified nefarious purposes. On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that a story on the subject from men's rights activist Mike Cernovich was worthy of a Pulitzer.
Rice herself, in a Tuesday afternoon appearance on MSNBC, admitted that she had asked for US citizens to be unmasked on several occasions throughout her tenure — though she was cagey about whether any of them were Trump transition team members. But she insisted she had done nothing wrong.
"The allegations that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes are absolutely false," she said. "[Unmasking] is necessary to do my job. ... Imagine if we saw something of grave significance about Russia, or China, or anybody else interfering with our political process."
So who's right? Well, the actual experts on intelligence and national security who have followed this story — regardless of their political affiliation — have nearly uniformly backed Rice. They believe there would have been nothing worrisome about Rice asking for the names of Trump officials to be unmasked while in her post as the administration's top national security official.
"Nothing in this story indicates anything improper," Susan Hennessey, a former attorney for the National Security Agency and current Brookings Institution fellow, tweeted. "What we're seeing here is US officials doing jobs to respond to what had markers of a counterintelligence threat: the Trump campaign."
The Rice flap, on close inspection, isn't a story about the Obama administration purportedly spying on the Trump campaign. It's a story about how far the conservative media and some congressional Republicans are willing to go to muddy the waters around Donald Trump's wildest and least defensible ideas.