The mood was light when President Barack Obama’s former national security adviser Susan Rice took a stage in mid-January with President Donald Trump’s incoming successor, Michael Flynn. Rather than pass a baton to Flynn, she said, she should give him a case of Red Bull.
But Rice later struck a sober note for the audience of foreign policy insiders. Noting the many threats facing America, Rice said: “Gen. Flynn, I am rooting for you.”
Now, conservatives are accusing Rice of actively undermining him — by misusing her authority to sabotage Flynn, who was out of the job in less than a month.
Several news outlets reported this week that while Rice was in the White House, she requested that the names of Trump transition team officials be “unmasked” in some intelligence reports. Americans whose communications are incidentally captured in surveillance of foreign persons are generally not named unless there is a specific request to reveal their identities.
Flynn’s name was reportedly among those unmasked, and later leaked to the media, revealing contacts he had with the Russian ambassador in December, which cost him his job after it became clear he had misrepresented them to fellow White House officials.
Conservative critics have suggested Rice sought the identities of officials on Trump’s transition team for political purposes, something Rice flatly denied on Tuesday. “The allegation is that, somehow, Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” Rice told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “That’s absolutely false.”
Her denial did nothing to slow the gathering wave of outrage in conservative media outlets. Her face appeared for much of the day on Fox News, Breitbart and other right-leaning outlets — with a big assist from Trump, who retweeted a morning Drudge Report headline that read, “RICE ORDERED SPY DOCS ON TRUMP?”
Rice became a household name on the right after she argued in a series of television appearances in the days immediately after the September 2012 Benghazi attacks, in which the American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed, that the episode was not an instance of Islamic terrorism. Rice, who was later accused of trying to engineer a cover-up, said she was relying on the best available information at the time.
The blowback cost Rice an expected nomination to be secretary of state after Hillary Clinton stepped down following the 2012 election.
In mid-2014, Republicans piled on again after Rice said in an interview that Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who was found to have been captured by the Taliban after he deserted his post in Afghanistan, had served “with honor and distinction.”
Rice is “the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in a Tuesday interview with the conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt. “Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it,” Cotton added, citing Benghazi and “many of the other fiascos of the Obama administration.”
Speaking on Fox News, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who called on Rice to resign over her Bergdahl comment, said she had a record of “political manipulation of national security information.”
By midafternoon, at least five stories on the home page of Breitbart News, formerly edited by White House senior counselor Steve Bannon, were largely or entirely about Rice. One was titled “5 Susan Rice Scandal Facts Every American Must Know” and included the header: “Susan Rice was the driving force behind a misinformation campaign about the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi terror attacks.”
Democrats call the focus on Rice a White House-engineered diversion to distract attention from multiple investigations into the Trump campaign’s alleged connections with the Kremlin, which interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Some note that Rice seems to provoke an unusually intense reaction among her critics.
“It’s funny how Susan Rice doing her job is the subject of eternal controversy,” Loren D. Schulman, a former senior aide to Rice at the White House, tweeted on Monday. “Why is that, one wonders.”
Unmasking the name of an American incidentally caught up in foreign surveillance is not illegal, although leaking such a name would be.
“The notion that … some people are trying to suggest, that by asking for the identity of an American person, that is the same as leaking it, is completely false,” Rice said in her MSNBC interview. “There’s no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking. The effort to ask for the identity of the American citizen is necessary to understand the importance of an intelligence report in some instances.”
Rice’s defenders note that even as national security adviser, she did not have the power to unmask a name from an intelligence report on her own. She could only request that the originating intelligence agency do so, requiring officials at that agency to sign off. They also cited reports that Rice’s name was in logs showing intelligence reports she had accessed and names she had sought to unmask as evidence that Rice had not done anything improper.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr on Tuesday would not rule out the possibility of requesting an interview with Rice as part of his panel’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.
“If there is intelligence that leads to a reason for us to look at Susan Rice, then we’ll do it,” the North Carolina Republican told reporters. “Whether it’s Susan Rice or anybody, if there is intelligence that leads to some value at bringing them in, inviting them in for an interview, then we’ll have them in.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican and a member of the intelligence panel, said he wanted Rice to come before the committee, saying, “It sounds to me like she has some information that would be pertinent to the investigation.”
The committee is now scheduling an initial 20 interviews with witnesses, starting with intelligence officials. The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said Tuesday that Rice was not among the initial planned witnesses.
Flynn’s name was first leaked in connection with Russia-related surveillance two days after he and Rice appeared together at an event hosted by the U.S. Institute for Peace focused on the presidential transition. Subsequent leaks made clear that Flynn had misrepresented and downplayed the nature of his contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak. Flynn resigned late Feb. 13.
Asked by MSNBC’s Mitchell whether she was responsible for Flynn’s downfall, Rice firmly denied it: “I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would.”
Madeline Conway and Austin Wright contributed to this report.
Powered by WPeMatico