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Image: Michael Flynn
Gen. Michael Flynn leaves Federal Court on Dec. 1, 2017 in Washington.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

The made-up controversy over Michael Flynn’s unmasking collapses

Republicans said Michael Flynn’s unmasking was “bigger than Watergate.” We now know just how spectacularly wrong they were.


Donald Trump spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to convince the public that there was a genuine controversy surrounding Obama-era “unmaskings,” at one point describing it as a “massive” scandal. The former president’s Republican allies did their best to boost the public-relations offensive.

Then-Rep. Devin Nunes, for example, the year before his resignation, was an aggressive proponent of the story. Sen. Rand Paul insisted the story had produced “smoking gun” evidence that officials “spied on” the Trump campaign. Sen. John Cornyn went so far as to suggest earlier this year that the matter is “bigger than Watergate.”

They were all completely, demonstrably, and unambiguously wrong. BuzzFeed reported:

A Justice Department probe found that members of the Obama administration did not seek to reveal the identity of Michael Flynn “for political purposes or other inappropriate reasons,” a newly disclosed report reveals. The document details the results of a monthslong investigation into the so-called unmasking of Flynn, who briefly served as national security adviser to then-president Donald Trump before he resigned in February 2017 in the wake of the revelation that he had lied about phone conversations he held with Russia’s ambassador to the US.

I have a hunch readers may need a refresher on the details, so let’s revisit our earlier coverage and take a stroll down memory lane.

It was two years ago this week when then-Attorney General Bill Barr made a provocative announcement: Barr told Fox News that John Bash, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in the Western District of Texas, would closely examine Obama-era “unmasking” practices, specifically with Flynn in mind.

Even at the time, it was clearly a pointless exercise: In national security circles, “unmasking” is a routine development in which U.S. officials examine intelligence intercepts involving people abroad, and uncover the names of Americans who appear in those reports. All of this, of course, became more notable in the wake of the controversy surrounding Flynn — a former foreign agent who was in communications with Russia before starting his stint in the West Wing as Trump’s national security advisor.

Broadly speaking, Team Trump made a couple of claims. The first was that the interception of Flynn’s communications with Russia was proof that the Obama White House “spied on” the incoming Republican administration. This never made any sense: U.S. intelligence was spying on Russian officials. Flynn was caught up in intercepted messages because of his private interactions with Putin’s government.

The second was that the Obama White House targeted Flynn as part of some kind of partisan political scheme.

The nature of this alleged partisan political scheme never made any sense — even the right’s most enthusiastic conspiracy theorists have struggled to articulate exactly what the Democratic administration allegedly did and why — and Barr’s handpicked, Trump-appointed Texas prosecutor determined that no one in the Obama White House did anything wrong.

Indeed, the only person who actually did something wrong was Flynn: He lied to the FBI about his covert communications with Russia. (Flynn later pleaded guilty, twice, before changing his mind, and ultimately receiving a corrupt pardon from Trump.)

To be sure, much of this has been well documented for quite some time, but the BuzzFeed article, bringing into the light the detailed, previously classified findings of Team Trump’s own handpicked investigator, represents “a resounding rejection“ of the conspiracy theories Americans were told to believe.

It’s unlikely that this will stop the former president from peddling the discredited claims anyway — Trump’s relationship with reality is badly broken — but now nevertheless seems like an excellent time for some accountability.

Is Rand Paul prepared to admit the “smoking gun” evidence he was so excited about in 2017 wasn’t real? Is John Cornyn going to acknowledge that his “bigger than Watergate” claims from 2020 were spectacularly wrong?