Before we get to Susan Rice, first things first. Every scandal needs a catchy nickname so we can avoid repeating drawn-out descriptions. One-word nicknames are best, especially for those who traffic in tabloids and television.
Absent a better choice, this one shall be known as SpyGate. Spy because there is mounting evidence the Obama administration spied on Team Trump. And Gate because ever since Watergate, big scandals and wannabe big scandals must be Gate. It’s a rule.
We also need a memorable question or two that points toward the endgame. When Richard Nixon’s fate hung in the balance, the case turned on these: What did the president know and when did he know it?
In SpyGate, the crucial question is this: How do we know that the Obama spying on Team Trump was incidental?
What if it was intentional? What if spying was part of a plot to destroy Trump’s candidacy and, when that failed, sabotage his presidency?
We don’t have verifiable answers yet, despite being assured repeatedly that Trump and his associates merely were picked up in conversations with Russian and other foreign officials who were being spied on. Those doing the assuring said that since the Trumpsters were not the targets, it was incidental and thus no harm, no foul.
But there were lots of harms and fouls. For months, stories about possible collusion between Trump and Russia turned exclusively on leaks about members of Trump’s inner circle being caught talking to Russians.
Gen. Mike Flynn was the first example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was second and others include Jared Kushner. Those leaks, always from anonymous officials, serve to undermine the new president and encourage Democrats to obstruct the administration in the hope that impeachment is coming.
By my count, at least six people — including Trump himself — have been identified as having their communications intercepted by American law enforcement or intelligence. Always, it was “incidental.”
Which gets us to Susan Rice and the importance of her role in seeking the unmasking of those Trump officials. Weeks after she denied any knowledge of unmasking, Obama’s national security adviser flip-flopped Tuesday and admitted she had “sometimes” asked intelligence agencies to identify American citizens whose names had been withheld, as required, in initial reports.
“And sometimes, in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out, or request the information as to find out who that US official was,” she told MSNBC.
Count that as one mystery solved. But Rice made two other denials. One, that she didn’t leak any names to the media. And two, that the unmasking was never done for political purposes.
Her track record doesn’t help her credibility. Rice infamously went on five Sunday television shows in 2012 to assure the nation that the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans was in response to an Internet video. That was a flat-out lie — it was a planned terror attack and she had to know as much.
She also brazenly insisted in 2014 that Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant held by the Taliban for five years, had “served with honor and distinction” to justify the trade of five terrorists from Gitmo for his release. Her claim was false, and even the Army disagreed with Rice, charging Bergdahl with desertion.
So when Rice and her defenders insist that SpyGate is much ado about very little, that’s not even close to good enough. She has to prove it — by testifying under oath to Congress.