As an intelligence surveillance scandal involving Donald Trump threatens to turn back on Susan Rice and the Obama White House, New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Matthew Rosenberg ran interference for the previous Democratic administration in Thursday’s edition with “Trump, Offering No Evidence, Suggests Rice Committed a Crime.” The text box: “A president’s attack on an ex-national security adviser is roundly rejected.”
Newsbuster Curtis Houck caught the paper’s snarky headlines when the piece was first posted (and had its headline subsequently “improved” with that precious “offering no evidence” clause) on Wednesday, and the end result in print Thursday was equally in lock-step with Democratic talking points.
A partisan closed-mindedness permeates the piece, a knee-jerk aversion to the very idea that Obama’s national security adviser (caught lying on all the networks in 2012 about a Youtube video that allegedly caused the Benghazi massacre) might have violated the law in having the identities of Trump associates caught up in foreign surveillance improperly “unmasked” (revealed) and then leaked. Reading the Times, one would think that it’s pure right-wing fantasy, although the paper’s own White House reporter Peter Baker didn’t dismiss it that quite out of hand in Wednesday’s edition.
President Trump said on Wednesday that Susan E. Rice, the former national security adviser, may have committed a crime by seeking to learn the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by United States spy agencies, repeating an assertion his allies in the news media have been making since last week.
Mr. Trump gave no evidence to support his claim, and current and former intelligence officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations have said they do not believe Ms. Rice’s actions were unusual or unlawful. The president repeatedly rebuffed attempts by two New York Times reporters to learn more about what led him to the conclusion, saying he would talk more about it “at the right time.”
The allegation by a sitting president was a remarkable escalation -- and, his critics say, the latest effort to change the story at a time when his nascent administration has been consumed by questions about any role his associates may have played in a Russian campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election.
The media’s deep incuriosity about Rice’s actions were revealed in a rather desperate-seeming attempt to freeze the serious allegations involving abuse of national security as mere raving from the right-wing fringe.
Wednesday’s interview revealed how Mr. Trump seizes on claims made by the conservative news media, from fringe outlets to Fox News, and gives them a presidential stamp of approval and also increases their reach.
Last week, some Republican television commentators asserted that Ms. Rice had improperly leaked the names of Trump associates picked up in surveillance of foreign officials. On Sunday, a conservative writer and conspiracy theorist reported, without identifying his sources, that Ms. Rice had been the one to seek identities of the Trump associates.
Other conservative outlets picked up the report, and the Drudge Report website, which has been supportive of Mr. Trump, featured the story prominently. White House officials then accused mainstream news outlets of not giving the story proper coverage.
Normally, when Americans are swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by intelligence agencies, their identities are supposed to be obscured. But they can be revealed -- or “unmasked” -- for national security reasons, and intelligence officials say it is a regular occurrence and completely legal for a national security adviser to request the identities of Americans who are mentioned in intelligence reports.
Intelligence officials said any requests that Ms. Rice made would have had to be granted by the intelligence agency that produced the report. In most cases, that would likely have been the National Security Agency, which is responsible for electronic surveillance of foreign officials.
It could be a crime if Ms. Rice leaked the name of any American wrapped up in the surveillance net, but she flatly denied doing so in her MSNBC interview.
“I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have and never would,” Ms. Rice said.
Well, case closed, then!
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It is not the first time Mr. Trump has made a provocative allegation without providing supporting evidence. One of the most notorious instances of this was his yearslong claim that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States.
Like his statements about Mr. Obama -- which he walked away from late in the 2016 presidential campaign -- Mr. Trump’s claims about Ms. Rice have taken hold in the conservative news media, where she has been a target ever since her press appearances after the terrorist attack on a diplomatic outpost in Libya in September 2012.
The Times skipped over the pertinent points of the Libya incident: Rice’s notorious appearance on all five Sunday political talk shows, where she spouted the same lie about the Benghazi massacre being caused by a Youtube video. Haberman and Rosenberg couldn’t even bring themselves to say the word “Benghazi,” much less Christopher Stevens, the ambassador who was murdered.
Mr. Trump’s March 4 Twitter message came after reports in conservative news outlets -- including Breitbart, the website once run by the president’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon -- claiming that there had been surveillance of some kind against Mr. Trump when he was a candidate.
Mr. Trump was widely criticized for the intemperate post, and he began to ask his advisers about how he might be able to investigate the issue.
Weeks later, Representative Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters that he had learned of new information that Trump associates may have been surveilled in some way. He rushed to the White House to brief the president, even though it was later revealed that the information had come from White House officials.
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, cast Mr. Trump’s comments as part of a broader effort by the president to distract from the investigations into Russia’s interference in the election. The committee is running one of the investigations.
The report concluded with outrage from Schiff that Trump would dare accuse Rice of a crime.