It’s another Friday, and things in Washington look a little bleak to a lot of folks. People who see with inside-the-Beltway eyes seem to fall into two basic categories: those who are trying to take down the Trump administration, and those who don’t understand why the counter-fight against that effort can’t be a more seemly, conventional, genteel one.
But from outside the Beltway, it’s been staggeringly obvious for months that the Marquis of Queensberry left the building a long time ago. The reason the Trump administration is always running around as if it’s dodging sniper fire is that it’s dodging sniper fire.
The Trump administration isn’t just being denied the advantages the Obama administration had: friendly media, an enthusiastic federal bureaucracy. It’s being actively targeted by a systematic campaign of intelligence leaks – leaks of intelligence, and leaks from intelligence and other national security officials. Combine that with major media outlets willing to simply pass along whatever is “leaked” to them – no matter how ridiculous – and you get an informational environment whose toxicity seems to grow by the hour.
So we arrive at this Friday, the last day of March 2017. And the big story of the day is a New York Times article purporting to out Devin Nunes’s sources in the White House, for his explosive brief last week about evidence that surveillance data on Trump had been retrieved during the Obama administration.
One could write at length about this, and at some point maybe I will. But right now, with spirits drooping out there, it’s more important to survey the big picture. So tonight, I will just make a handful of observations.
First, Sean Spicer is actually the guy you need to listen to. He has said the most profound and truest thing on this topic in the last two days – although it’s probably not what you think. It’s a stray comment he made in Thursday’s press briefing, when he cautioned reporters about the NYT article. “You’re assuming it’s true,” he said.
His implication was that it’s not true, or at least not in the most important way.
And he’s probably right. Why? Because the individuals named as Nunes’s “sources” by NYT (and the Washington Post) can’t be “the source.” They can’t be the individual(s) Nunes is trying to protect.
All NYT and its sources have done is name people Nunes is said to have coordinated with in the White House. That means he wasn’t being straight when he said he didn’t talk to “White House officials.” It doesn’t mean we’ve learned anything about a source for the core issue: the back-door surveillance of Trump.
The persons identified by the newspapers are Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office – both named in the NYT article – along with John Eisenberg, deputy counsel to the president for national security (who was named by WaPo).
None of these men – not even Cohen-Watnick – is in a job that would give rise, uncued, to first-hand, original knowledge about the raw surveillance material at the center of this whole drama.
Cohen-Watnick, an intel professional himself, with a high clearance, may have done research once he had been cued by someone else. The NYT article says he did research of his own, and it may be correct about that.
But the way the unmasking of surveillance data about Trump would have come to light means that Cohen-Watnick had to be cued, by someone (probably a mid-level staffer) who originally saw the retrievals being done.
It’s that still-unidentified staffer – the actual “source” – whom Nunes would want to protect. The three political hires – Cohen-Watnick, Ellis, and Eisenberg – don’t need identity protection. Nunes can coordinate with them any time he wants, and they with him.
I sympathize very much with the justifiable anger and disappointment of Eli Lake, who has had to take a professional hit for accepting Nunes’s word that he hadn’t spoken to “White House officials.” I would feel the same way. Nunes has burned a bridge, and may have damaged the prospects of his investigation, and neither of those is something to be taken lightly.
But Nunes probably declined to admit to any “White House” contact because he didn’t want to vector others onto his connections in the administration, who do know the identity of the original source. For reasons relating to how the information would come to light, it has to be someone who worked in a SCIF during the Obama administration, and was aware of the data retrievals being done in which Trump-related identifying info was unmasked. (Don’t worry; believe me, the IC has already figured that out.)
The second observation is that this whole current scenario looks like Michael Flynn redux. Two of the officials named to the media – Cohen-Watnick and Eisenberg – have been identified previously as individuals the intelligence community (IC) wants to get rid of, or at least mistrusts, because Flynn brought them to the National Security Council.
After Flynn’s departure, all of Washington, both pro-Trump and anti-Trump, erupted in a paroxysm of accord on one point: the intel community had its knives out for Flynn, and brought him down. The only difference was in whether observers thought that was a good thing, or a bad one. The model for the IC leaking data bites to make someone toxic is universally acknowledged to be out there.
Michael Ellis, meanwhile, was counsel to the House Intelligence Committee, working for Nunes, just before he moved to the NSC in early March. Yes, that probably means the move was made to enable him to do some digging on the NSC staff. It’s obvious why the IC would want to dirty him up and cast doubt on his work-product.
Nunes may in fact have coordinated this particular issue with all three men. On the other hand, Eisenberg might have been thrown in by WaPo’s anonymous source just because he’s on the IC’s persona non grata list.
Regardless, the NYT article was an opportunity to cast two of the men by name in a vaguely nefarious light, while giving the (false) impression that any coordination done with them by Nunes impugns the whole investigation.
The third observation is that the sticky theme about Michael Flynn’s personnel hires being hostile to the JCPOA with Iran reared its head once again on Thursday. Adam Kredo reported back in February that the campaign against Flynn was orchestrated by Obama holdovers on the NSC and national intelligence staffs, who had been loyal to Ben Rhodes in the “echo chamber” push for the JCPOA. They were willing to attack individuals however they had to, to prevent Trump’s people from undoing their work.
And darned if Ezra Cohen-Watnick’s posture on Iran-related issues didn’t get top billing in reporting this week on why the IC wants him gone.
The fourth observation is that being under concerted attack by both the IC and much of the media is one of two big reasons why Nunes and the Trump administration would have thought it necessary to do their own investigation of the surveillance issue. They could justifiably expect active non-cooperation from the IC. It really takes determination at this point to not see that.
But the other big reason is the nature of the necessary forensics. That factor means this could not be turned over to the FBI for conventional processing. The evidence exists in an IT audit trail, not in files or printed documents. For positive evidence, someone with the highest level of access has to record what’s being done without alerting those who are doing it. The nature of the problem won’t change to suit our expectations or preferences.
Is there any chance the Democrats on the Hill would have agreed to putting someone inside and checking up on what was being done at the NSC? Could Trump or Nunes afford to gamble that chance, and be wrong? Those are judgment calls each person has to make for him or herself. There is no predetermined or evident answer.
Career Washingtonians of goodwill wish in vain for a familiar, stately way to process this problem. But there isn’t one that can reveal the truth. And in this situation, what matters is for the people to know the truth about what has been done. This isn’t about building a case for prosecution. It’s about one of the biggest political crises the nation has ever faced.
Politically, meanwhile, we aren’t in a Washington anymore in which the old rules of collegiality afford the protection and imputed “fairness” of bipartisanship. With each day that passes, it amazes me more how obvious that is from outside the Beltway – and yet how blind so many people apparently are to it on the inside.
Still, all of that is merely the survey of what’s wrong. Somehow, the truth that America needs, to ultimately right herself, keeps coming out one way or another. It probably will again, even when things look as dark as they do on this Friday night. In fact, the worse things look, the bigger the next truth is likely to be. Don’t lose heart.