There are two big, outstanding questions surrounding Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and Russia: Did associates of the Trump campaign and transition have improper or illicit contact with Russian officials? Did the Obama administration improperly monitor and leak identifying details about those Trump campaign and transition figures?
Two stories published Monday help bring some clarity—but not full answers—to these questions. Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake reported that Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, “requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.”
That’s in no way a vindication of President Trump’s tweet last month that Obama ordered a wiretap on him and Trump Tower. But it does show Rice, a political appointee in the White House, had unmasked Trump officials who were caught up incidentally in surveillance of foreign persons—something Rice claimed last month she knew “nothing about.” This, Lake points out, is why House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes needed to view the intelligence reports at the White House on March 21, on a National Security Council computer system that would have documented Rice’s unmasking requests.
Was Rice’s unmasking request legal? Likely yes. Was it improper, or an abuse of power? That’s less clear. The appearance of a politically motivated unmasking isn’t a good look for the Obama administration—especially as some argue former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn was ousted thanks to leaks by Obama loyalists within the intelligence community. Nor does it help the future of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s 702 program, whose opponents argue it violates civil liberties. That’s the argument I’m hearing from Flynn loyalists in the White House. And after the revelations about Rice, it may end up getting voice by one of Flynn’s biggest loyalists: President Trump.
A Back-Channel Meeting With the Russians
The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported Monday afternoon that the FBI is looking into an early January meeting in the Seychelles between a “Russian close to President Vladimir Putin” and an American businessman with ties to Trump, Black water’s Erik Prince:
The meeting took place around Jan. 11 — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, officials said. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would likely require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.
Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant, according to the officials, who did not identify the Russian.
Prince was an avid supporter of Trump who gave $250,000 last year to support the GOP nominee’s campaign, records show. He has ties to people in Trump’s circle, including Stephen K. Bannon, now serving as the president’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos serves as education secretary in the Trump administration. And Prince was seen in the Trump transition offices in New York in December.
The story seems explosive and suggestive given the questions about the Trump campaign’s possible connections with Putin’s government. But there’s no evidence in the Post the Trump transition directed Prince or had knowledge of the meeting. There’s also no indication of how truly close the Russian is to Putin, or if both or either party was representing their respective leaders’ actual positions.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the Post story, or whether Prince had had any official contact with President Trump or the administration since the inauguration.