Targeting Susan Rice, Republican gambit completely backfires

As part of a pointless gambit, Republicans thought they'd uncovered a smoking gun. They failed to realize it was pointed in the wrong direction.
Image: National Security Adviser Susan Rice
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 05: National Security Adviser Susan Rice moderates a session of the U.S.-Africa Business Forum on "Powering Africa: Leading Developments In Infrastructure," during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel August 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. The three-day-long summit is to strengthen ties between the United States and African nations. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Alex Wong / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) apparently thought he'd come up with a good idea. A few days ago, the Wisconsin Republican formally requested that the Trump administration fully declassify an email former White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice sent to herself in January 2017 regarding her incoming successor, former foreign agent Michael Flynn.

As Johnson noted, that email, portions of which were made available to the public in 2018, referenced details of an Oval Office meeting from Jan. 5, 2017, in which then-President Barack Obama and his team discussed, among other things, Flynn and his misconduct. The powerful Senate committee chairman said in his written request that it is "essential that Congress and the American people understand what occurred" in that meeting.

For her part, Rice enthusiastically endorsed Johnson's request -- and it's become painfully obvious why. As Politico reported late yesterday:

[The full text of the email] says that then-FBI Director James Comey worried about sharing classified information with the Trump team because of incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn's frequent conversations with the Russian ambassador but that Comey had no knowledge of Flynn sharing classified information with the envoy.

Rice's email, sent in the interest of memorializing her concerns in an official record, said Obama wanted to be sure "every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities 'by the book.'" The email, written shortly before Trump's inauguration added, "[Obama] stressed that he is not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective. He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book."

The newly declassified portion discloses that Comey, the then-FBI director, confirmed that federal law enforcement was proceeding "by the book," though he had concerns about Flynn's frequent and problematic communications with the country that had just attacked the U.S. elections.

Remember, the point of this week's disclosures, from the perspective of Ron Johnson and other Republicans, was to make Susan Rice and the Obama administration look bad. Except the gambit has now backfired: the Rice email GOP partisans were so eager to disclose shows an Obama team doing everything right, while also casting Flynn -- the disgraced former general whose reputation Republicans are trying to rescue -- in a deeply unflattering light.

Or put another way, Republicans have found a smoking gun, but they failed to realize it was pointed in the wrong direction.

Indeed, the gambit that was intended to put Rice on the defensive has actually left her on the offensive. From the Politico article:

Rice also called for the Trump administration to release the transcripts of phone calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador during the transition. "The American people deserve the full transcripts so they can judge for themselves Michael Flynn's conduct," the statement read.

Exactly. Ron Johnson, Ric Grenell, and Republicans are interested in Flynn-related disclosures? That's a great idea. Flynn had private communications with the country that attacked U.S. elections -- communications he later lied to the FBI about -- reportedly as part of an effort to undermine his own country's foreign policy at the time. There are apparently transcripts of those chats.

If Rice's letter has been declassified, shouldn't Flynn's conversations be treated the same way? The fact that it hasn't may have something to do with the Trump administration and its allies hoping to ignore a real scandal while trying to manufacture a fake one.