Even though it seems like we've been hearing about it forever, we are still in the very early stages of the investigation about what exactly happened between Trump campaign officials and members of the Russian government. But there is at least one clear signal that the story is much more than just the latest inside the Beltway conspiracy theory: the repeated attempts by Trump and his allies to change the narrative.
The most recent attempt at a rewrite of the story came on April 3, when Bloomberg ran an article by Eli Lake which said that President Obama's national security advisor, Susan Rice, had sought the "unmasking" of Trump campaign officials who were picked up during surveillance of foreign persons. Lake's piece got all the attention, but, as Medium pointed out, the story was broken by a guy named Mike Cernovich.
Cernovich is a Trump-loving lawyer and writer whose Wikipedia entry says he is often described as a member of the "alt-right." He's also the guy who was recently accused of being a purveyor of "fake news" by 60 Minutes. That program described Cernovich's website, Danger & Play, as being "a magnet for readers with a taste for stories with no basis in fact." Cernovich has advanced an unproven story that Hillary Clinton suffers from Parkinson's disease, and he is one of the main proponents of the "pizzagate" conspiracy theory that a pedophile ring connected to Clinton aide John Podesta operates out of a D.C. pizza restaurant.
Cernovich's piece ran on Medium April 2, where he breathlessly described Rice's request to "unmask" the names of Americans in intelligence reports. His story relies heavily on a Circa story by ex-Washington Times reporter John Solomon that describes how President Obama changed the rules on unmasking. It's worth noting that Circa is owned by the right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation.
So this story was basically a creation of right-wing media, where it floated around for over a day. Then Bloomberg and Eli Lake took the bait.
The suggestion being made by Cernovich is that what Rice did was unusual and possibly illegal. Lake also indicates he believes the move was unusual, although he does concede that it was probably legal. But on Monday evening ex-CIA analyst Ned Price told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell that there was nothing unusual about the unmasking request at all.
"There are certainly legitimate reasons, and very routine reasons for an analyst or for a policy maker to request unmasking," Price said. "Unmasking is not akin to leaking, and it is a routine process."
Missing from both Cernovich's and Lake's reporting on the matter is this: the Americans whose names were unmasked were either speaking with, or were being spoken about by agents of a foreign power that has been confirmed as having meddled in our election process. Therefore it seems legitimate to request the names of those Americans in order to determine who they were and what if any connection they may have had to that meddling.
The stories on this all focus on the notion that the unmasking would provide political ammunition for Trump's enemies. But we don't know the exact content of the conversations, and it is equally possible that unmasking the Americans' names could result in some of them being cleared of any wrongdoing. And, as Lawrence O'Donnell noted, the unmasking came not during the campaign, but during the transition, when it was absolutely impossible for anyone to stop Donald Trump from being sworn in as president.
Rice defended herself and the Obama administration on Tuesday, telling MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell,
"The allegation is that somehow, Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That’s absolutely false."
Cernovich and Lake have provided yet another distraction in the ongoing saga of Trump's Russian connections. At first the company line was "Forget the Russia story. We need to find out who leaked the Russia story." Then came the tweets about a Trump Tower wiretap. That marked the beginning of an all-out effort by Trump and his media allies to turn the story into one of Obama administration malfeasance. The Susan Rice revelation is the latest chapter.
These repeated attempts to bury the lede by Trump and his allies says that they fear what may come out of a thorough, impartial investigation. The fingers may not be on the panic button yet, but with Senate investigators appearing willing to do the job that the House will not do, pushing that button may not be far away. Given Trump's famous instability and the willingness of his supporters to go to any lengths to defend him, perhaps our next concern should be what will happen when that panic button is pushed.