It has now been a few days since Senators Grassley and Graham released a letter they had sent to ex-National Security Advisor Susan Rice, demanding information from her about a meeting held in the White House on January 5, 2017, and attaching to their letter a redacted copy of a remarkable email describing the meeting that Rice sent to herself on the government email system on January 20, 2017 at 12:15 PM. The Grassley/Graham letter and attached Rice email can be found here.
You will recognize January 20 at 12:15 PM as being about 20 minutes after Donald Trump was sworn in as President, and therefore the same number of minutes after Susan Rice's term as National Security Advisor had ended. She had no further government business to do, and therefore had no possible legitimate purpose related to government business to write herself this email on the government email system. And yet for some reason Rice felt it critically important at that moment to create a written record as to a meeting two weeks before as to which there had not previously existed a written record, sending the email only to herself and an assistant named Curtis Ried.
The Rice email is not long. Here is the unredacted portion of the text in full:
On January 5, following a briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election, President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and I were also present. President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of his issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities by the book. The President 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
From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia. . . . The President asked Corney to inform him if anything changes in the next few that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team. Corney said he would.
First, let's decode a little of the code. A briefing on the subject of "Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election" -- that's obvious code for FBI surveillance of the Trump campaign. "[Classified] information . . . as it relates to Russia" -- that's equally obvious code for the information about existence of the surveillance, as well as any information gathered during the surveillance of the Trump campaign and transition. In other words, the subject of this meeting was quite obviously how to deal going forward with conduct of the outgoing administration that was almost sure to be discovered to some extent, and was either blatantly illegal (surveilling the adversary's Presidential campaign and transition under cover of a FISA warrant known to have been obtained based on fake and unverified political opposition research) or shockingly contrary to protocol (hiding classified information of the highest importance from the incoming President and administration).
Am I the only one hearing the deafeningly loud echoes of Watergate? Supposedly, Obama said to handle this "by the book." Sure. Just like Nixon said that paying blackmail to the Watergate burglars "would be wrong."
Most readers are probably too young to have a personal memory of the unfolding revelations of the Watergate scandal as they came to light in 1973; so I'll give you the basics. Focus quickly fell upon a meeting held in the oval office on March 21, 1973. A good brief summary of the main events and the revelation of the truth can be found in this Deseret News article from 1992.
The Watergate burglary had occurred in June 1972. But the burglars -- operatives of the Nixon re-election campaign -- were caught. By early 1973 the burglars were under pressure from prosecutors to turn in the higher-ups who had ordered the operation. Several defendants demanded blackmail in return for maintaining their silence. And thus we come to the March 21, 1973 oval office meeting, attended by Nixon, chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, and counsel John Dean III. Haldeman testified about the meeting before a Senate committee on July 30, 1973. From the Deseret News account:
Haldeman said Dean reported on a blackmail threat from Watergate burglar Howard Hunt for $120,000, and Nixon questioned Dean about it, "trying to smoke him out." Dean said it would take $1 million, an amount that would be hard to raise. According to Haldeman, Nixon said, "There is no problem in raising a million dollars - we can do that - but it would be wrong." Haldeman said he was sure about his account because he jogged his memory by listening to the tape before testifying.
"But it would be wrong." That was the official spin. Unfortunately, a tape of the meeting was then produced.
The actual conversation revealed something quite different. When Dean related the blackmail threat, Nixon followed up on it in great detail, sounding like a gangster in earnest. "You could get a million dollars," the president said, "You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. It is not easy, but it could be done. But the question is who the hell would handle it? Any ideas on that?" Then Nixon and Dean continued to discuss the raising of hush money, consisting of eight pages in the transcript, with Nixon never saying there was anything wrong about it.
Ultimately, much later in the transcript, Nixon did make a comment that "it would be wrong," but in the context of potentially granting clemency, rather than paying blackmail.
Back to Rice's email. Why would she write such a thing? One obvious purpose is to justify Ms. Rice's own concealment from the incoming Trump team of some national security information (e.g., the information about the illegal surveillance). Hey, Barack instructed me to do it! Another would be to create a version of what was said at the meeting -- a version that would be exculpatory to Obama, at least as to the part of the meeting that involved clear illegality -- and to enable the participants to coordinate their stories. The email could not be sent to the participants directly, but its contents could be communicated by other means, likely oral. The known existence of the written version would restrain any of the other participants from giving another version of the events that they might think more favorable to their individual position. "This is what Barack and I will say; vary from it at your peril."
Can you think of another possible purpose of the email? I certainly cannot think of an innocent purpose.
Note that Obama may well have used the words "by the book" somewhere in the meeting, but the context could well be sufficiently different from that suggested to turn the phrase from exculpatory to inculpatory (just like Nixon did ultimately say "it would be wrong" in a different context from that suggested). For example, it would make perfect sense for Obama to have said that for the "Russia collusion" cover story to get any credence, it would have to be created "by the book."
In evaluating Rice's email, you will also do well to keep in mind that Ms. Rice was the person sent out by Obama in the aftermath of the Benghazi consulate attack of September 2012 to do the rounds of the Sunday talk shows and peddle the story that the attack was a reaction to an insignificant YouTube video. In fact the Benghazi attack was a pre-planned operation of Al Qaeda. Why is that important? Because September 2012 was immediately prior to the November 2012 election, in which Obama sought to deflect the criticism that he ran a weak foreign policy by claiming to be the guy who got Osama bin Laden and destroyed Al Qaeda. Oh, and Susan Rice is also the one who said that Bowe Bergdahl served with "honor and distinction." And the one who was caught "unmasking" the names of Trump campaign officials caught in national security surveillance, and then lying about same.
Is there any chance that the version of events in the Rice email is anything close to accurate?