Turns out the former national security adviser’s name was not redacted in FBI reports.
By Eric Lutz
Donald Trump’s allies are escalating their probes into the origins of the Russia investigation, announcing their intention to issue subpoenas for information about the “unmasking” of Michael Flynn—the president’s former national security adviser, who was forced out of the administration after less than a month over his shady contacts with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The retired general lied to Vice President Mike Pence, and later to federal investigators, about the interactions, and admitted as much when he pleaded guilty to Robert Mueller in 2017. But he has since become a cause for the president and other Republicans, who say he was set up by deep state actors working in concert with Barack Obama’s administration, which—as the conspiracy theory goes—was improperly spying on Flynn and others in Trump’s circle. “I’m trying to explain to the American people what happened in Crossfire Hurricane,” Lindsey Graham told reporters this week.
But there appears to be a problem with the “unmasking” theory: Flynn was not, in fact, unmasked in the report on his Kislyak call. The Washington Post on Wednesday reported that, in the FBI’s report about communications between Flynn and Kislyak, Flynn’s name appeared unredacted, making the hunt to find out who in the Obama administration sought to reveal his name in intelligence materials—well, kind of unnecessary. “They included Flynn’s name from the beginning,” a former United States official told the Post. “There were therefore no requests for the unmasking of that information.”
As the Post points out, government officials request redacted names in intelligence reports be “unmasked” to get a better sense of what they are reading. But, the official told the paper, Flynn’s name was unredacted because his identity was essential to understanding the importance of the contacts outlined in the reports.
Trump, in contrast, has insisted that Flynn was the victim of a set-up as part of a larger scheme to subvert his presidency. He latched onto documents unsealed last month as evidence: notes and emails among FBI agents apparently written in preparation for their interview with the retired general. “What is our goal?” an official wrote in the notes. “Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” The right immediately called for his exoneration, and William Barr’s Justice Department took the extraordinary step of moving to drop the case against Flynn. A federal judge has hit the pause button on that for now, but Trump and his allies have continued the crusade in Flynn’s name. Trump loyalist Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, declassified a list of Obama officials—including presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden—who requested to “unmask” an American citizen whose name was redacted from intelligence reports.
It was already a non-scandal; what Trump and his allies have cast in ominous terms is a routine practice. “I think it is a desperate and manipulative attempt to turn into a scandal what was appropriate action taken by senior officials,” a former national security official told my colleague Abigail Tracy last week. But the story line falls apart even further with the revelation that Flynn’s name appeared in the report on the December 29, 2016 Kislyak phone call, and needed no “unmasking” to begin with.
Of course, these Trumpworld investigations aren’t meant to make sense. The idea here is not so much to uncover wrongdoing as it is to have the words “Obama” and “Biden” and “investigation” appear in the same sentence as much as possible between now and November, and to occasionally turn up nefarious-sounding but ultimately benign materials, like Susan Rice’s recently declassified email to herself in which she noted—gasp!—that Barack Obama made clear he wanted investigations into Russia’s election hacking to be done “by the book.” “The Obama Administration is turning out to be one of the most corrupt and incompetent in U.S. history,” Trump tweeted last week. “Obamagate” is looking more and more like this cycle’s Hillary Clinton email scandal—a web of implication and insinuation that doesn’t add up to anything, but is just confusing enough to muddy the waters and distract from the corruption and incompetence that has been unfolding in plain sight this whole time. It seems particularly tired this time around, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.