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To derail Iran deal, Trump World reportedly sought 'dirt' on Obama aides

Nearly a half-century after the Watergate break-in, history isn't necessarily repeating itself, but to borrow a line, it is rhyming.
President Barack Obama meets with Cody Keenan, Director of Speechwriting, and Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, for State of the Union speech prep in the Oval Office, Jan. 7, 2016. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House)
President Barack Obama meets with Cody Keenan, Director of Speechwriting, and Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, for State of the Union speech prep in the Oval Office, Jan. 7, 2016.

Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal included many facets, but it started with a break-in. The Republican White House hired a group of "plumbers" to uncover dirt on the president's political opponents. Nearly a half-century later, history isn't necessarily repeating itself, but to borrow a line, it is rhyming.

The fact that Donald Trump and his team have contempt for the international nuclear agreement with Iran is not new. What is new is the prospect of this Republican White House hiring outsiders to, in Nixonian fashion, uncover dirt on the president's political opponents.

The Guardian published a report over the weekend that managed to surprise many observers who are already inclined to believe the worst about Trump World.

Aides to Donald Trump, the US president, hired an Israeli private intelligence agency to orchestrate a "dirty ops" campaign against key individuals from the Obama administration who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, the Observer can reveal.People in the Trump camp contacted private investigators in May last year to "get dirt" on Ben Rhodes, who had been one of Barack Obama's top national security advisers, and Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to Obama, as part of an elaborate attempt to discredit the deal.

The allegations raised in the report have not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News. That said, if the reporting is accurate, the revelations are legitimately stunning.

Note, for example, that The Guardian isn't pointing to actions taken during the Obama presidency or during the international negotiations. Rather, the reported events described in the article unfolded last year, months into Trump's presidency, when the White House decided it wanted to derail the Iran deal and began looking for a rationale to justify a decision Trump had already made.

It was at this point, according to The Guardian, that the American president's aides hired spies to uncover dirt on Americans who served the nation's interests, and who are now private citizens, accused of nothing.

Rhodes told the British newspaper, "I was not aware, though sadly am not surprised. I would say that digging up dirt on someone for carrying out their professional responsibilities in their positions as White House officials is a chillingly authoritarian thing to do."

Wait, it gets much worse.

In the New Yorker, Ronan Farrow advanced the story, confirming that there was an undercover, intelligence-gathering operation, which was "carried out by Black Cube -- a firm that was also employed by Harvey Weinstein and that offers its clients access to operatives from 'Israel's élite military and governmental intelligence units,' including the Mossad." The report added:

The documents show that Black Cube compiled detailed background profiles of several individuals, including Rhodes and Kahl, that featured their addresses, information on their family members, and even the makes of their cars.Black Cube agents were instructed to try to find damaging information about them, including unsubstantiated claims that Rhodes and Kahl had worked closely with Iran lobbyists and were personally enriched through their policy work on Iran (they denied those claims); rumors that Rhodes was one of the Obama staffers responsible for "unmasking" Trump transition officials who were named in intelligence documents (Rhodes denied the claim); and an allegation that one of the individuals targeted by the campaign had an affair.

On Twitter over the weekend, Kahl, a former adviser to Barack Obama and Joe Biden, shared a rather extraordinary story about his wife serving on a fundraising committee last year at their daughter's public charter school, when she received an email from someone claiming to represent a socially responsible private equity firm in the U.K. The person who sent the email wanted to chat with Kahl's wife in person about possibly including the school in an educational fund network.

As described, the pitch seemed obviously fishy: the emailer had specific information about his wife's volunteer duties at an obscure elementary school, she directed Kahl's wife to a since-deleted website of dubious legitimacy, and she declined opportunities to meet with school officials or other school fundraising officers. Kahl's wife soon after cut off communications.

The New Yorker piece, describing the online interaction, added that Ben Rhodes' wife was targeted with a similarly strange pitch, and online information about those who initiated the outreach disappeared after Farrow contacted Black Cube with questions.

Black Cube denied any wrongdoing and claimed not to have any associations with the president or the Trump administration.

That said, after the New Yorker piece was published, Colin Kahl published another notable Twitter thread, noting that around the same time the Israeli firm was hired, prominent members of Trump's team started appearing in conservative media to criticize the "Ben Rhodes-Colin Kahl Nexus."

In a sane political environment, this is the kind of report that would spark immediate interest in congressional hearings. Republican leaders, however, have generally expressed little interest in administrative oversight (and in some instances, they've actively tried to undermine ongoing investigations).

As for the Iran deal that Trump will soon abandon, what does it say about the merits of the White House's position that it allegedly found tactics like these necessary?