The narrative that has been promoted by President Donald Trump and his allies over the last week has been thus: We are the victims here. According to the president, the congressional and FBI probes into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election is a “hoax.” Not a hoax, though, are the revelations that Obama administration officials—former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, among them—sabotaged the administration early on by suspiciously “unmasking” Trump advisors inadvertently swept up in surveillance of foreign assets. The president himself speculated that Rice’s actions might be criminal in nature. That’s their case, and it has just been dealt a hefty blow: The original source of that “unmasking” claim, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, has stepped aside from the investigation.
On Thursday, the Intelligence Committee chair essentially recused himself from the investigation into Russia’s actions, which concedes that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, who demanded as much, were right. They claimed that Nunes’s bizarre behavior robbed the public of “the necessary confidence” that the House investigation could be conducted impartially. That assertion was lent legitimacy early Thursday when the House Ethics Committee revealed they were investigating whether Nunes had improperly disclosed classified intelligence to the public without the appropriate authorization. How ironic.
Nunes doesn’t just have himself to blame for his predicament; he could also blame the Trump administration. In late March, the California Republican held an impromptu press conference that appeared to corroborate the allegation implied in Donald Trump’s March 4th tweet, in which he insisted that he and his team had been spied upon by members of the Obama administration. Nunes’s bizarre and evasive behavior in the days that followed led observers to question where precisely his information came from. To shield the White House, Nunes misled reporters with whom he had built up confidence and goodwill over the years.
As it turns out, Nunes’s sources were in the White House, but even this had a reasonable explanation. You see, ranking officials in the last administration who had “unmasked” Trump associates for questionable reasons had done so on systems native to the White House. This was how the allegations involving Rice originated. Now, their source of those allegations has virtually discredited himself.
For anyone who believes in the value of good government, this is tragic. The allegations involving the Obama administration’s efforts to “unmask” Americans in intelligence reports toward political ends are truly troubling. While some might claim the ends justified the means, the unmasking of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and the release of transcripts of his entirely above-board conversations with a Russian ambassador was an irreversible breach of the social compact. The intention was to kill a career by implication and association. Flynn’s conduct—lying to the vice president and allowing Mike Pence to humiliate himself in public—cannot be blamed on the former administration, but the notion that Flynn deserved his treatment is entirely subjective and debatable.
As the Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith wrote in Tablet, Flynn’s treatment wasn’t unique. In the run-up to the Iran nuclear accords, the exposure of “U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups” who were supposedly in contact with Israeli government officials had a similar purpose. The suggestion conveyed in these selective releases to the press was that the mere association with Israel in 2015 was, in fact, prima facie evidence of collusion in the interests of a foreign power. That’s ugly stuff, and it deserves to be investigated thoroughly.
But conspiracy theories are rarely managed competently by the obsessive and paranoid. Nunes’s downfall is symptomatic of a larger malady hobbling this administration.
Today, on day 76 of this presidency, stories of palace intrigue have severely undermined the administration’s effectiveness. As NBC News reported, the removal of Senior Strategist Steve Bannon from the principals committee of the National Security Council is indicative of the ongoing war between “nationalists” and “globalists” within the administration. CNN revealed that the “paranoia” and “unrest” among top staff is hindering the administration’s ability to be effective. The ouster of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s ally Katie Walsh and the ascendance of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has amassed a comically unwieldy portfolio of responsibilities, is evidence of this chaos. Now, entirely as a result of the White House’s bumbled conniving to distance itself from the narrative it hoped to sow regarding “unmasking,” its ally has been politically neutralized.
Nunes joins Attorney General Jeff Sessions in recusing himself from an investigation into the conduct of the Trump campaign. The White House is running out of friends, and it’s getting harder to justify its objection to a special counsel on the Russia matter. Meanwhile, the administration is suffering legislative setbacks on the Hill, a series of mounting crises overseas, and challenges to its legitimacy at home as Trump’s job approval rating craters. White House allies would do well to stop indulging this administration’s ingrained paranoia and level with Trump: This is a presidency in crisis.