National Security Adviser Susan Rice listens to reporters questions during a briefing, March 21, 2014, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Trump’s claims about Susan Rice start to unravel

It started in early March with a series of early-morning tweets. For reasons that are still unclear, Donald Trump woke up one Saturday and started publishing online missives about a new conspiracy theory: Barack Obama launched an illegal wiretap operation before the election, specifically targeting Trump, as part of a scandalous and secret scheme.

In the weeks that followed, Trump and his team started changing the nature of the allegations. Maybe it wasn’t an actual wiretap, the White House said. Maybe it wasn’t illegal. Maybe it wasn’t before the election. Maybe Trump personally wasn’t targeted. Maybe Obama wasn’t directly involved.

Two weeks ago, the Republican president escalated matters considerably by overhauling the entire story, telling the New York Times that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice “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.”

Apparently persuaded by something he saw on a right-wing website, Trump specifically said at the time, “I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story. I think it’s a massive, massive story…. Yeah, it’s a bigger story than you know…. I think that it’s going to be the biggest story.”

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/4/17, 9:41 PM ET

Scandalized Trump camp pushes distraction story, Obama blame

Rachel Maddow looks at the political practice of “changing the narrative” to distract the media from talking about a scandal, and its application by Donald Trump and his supporters in trying to make the Trump Russia scandal somehow about the Obama…
Rachel Maddow looks at the political practice of “changing the narrative” to distract the media from talking about a scandal, and its application by Donald Trump and his supporters in trying to make the Trump Russia scandal somehow about the Obama…
As a rule, presidents don’t casually accuse former federal officials of crimes without proof – welcome to the Trump Era – and in this case, it appears the president had no idea what he was talking about.
A review of the surveillance material flagged by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes shows no inappropriate action by Susan Rice or any other Obama administration official, Republican and Democratic Congressional aides who have been briefed on the matter told NBC News.

President Donald Trump told the New York Times he believed former National Security Adviser Rice broke the law by asking for the identities of Trump aides who were mentioned in transcripts of U.S. surveillance of foreign targets. Normally, the identities of Americans are blacked out in transcripts circulated by the National Security Agency, but they may be “unmasked,” if their identities are relevant to understanding the intelligence.
Rice has already acknowledged that she obtained the identities of the Americans in question, but she explained that this was very much part of her job.

NBC News spoke to intelligence committee members from both parties – and both chambers – who’ve seen the intelligence materials and concluded that Rice is correct.

“I saw no evidence of any wrongdoing,” one U.S. official who reviewed the documents said. “It was all completely normal.”

This assessment is consistent with literally every independent report published in recent weeks. Those who took Trump’s criminal allegations at face value were, by all accounts, played for fools. We can have a larger conversation about whether the president understands how wrong his claims are, but the idea that Susan Rice is guilty of serious wrongdoing for completing routine aspects of her job is plainly wrong.

And yet, as recently as last week, Trump told Fox Business that when he referred to Obama’s illegal “wiretaps” – Trump originally managed to misspell the word “tap” – he was actually talking about Susan Rice. He added that “nobody believes” Rice and “it’s such a big story and I’m sure it will continue forward.”

Well, it has moved forward, but not in a way that does the president any favors.

I realize Rice is a popular villain in far-right circles, but at this point, Trump’s allegations weren’t just mistaken; they now appear increasingly ridiculous. Given what we now know, the salient controversy here has nothing to do with Susan Rice and everything to do with a sitting president who’s falsely accused his predecessor and the former NSA of criminal wrongdoing that didn’t happen in reality.

Circling back to a piece from last month, the line of inquiry seems pretty simple: what are the consequences of a sitting president lying about the previous administration committing a felony? If there are no consequences, what does that say about the state of our discourse and political system?