Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and has information from some of the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies at his disposal.
And instead of asking them what’s going on in the world, he’s telling them to watch Fox News.
On Monday morning, Trump sent a tweet referring to a recent Fox News report about surveillance of his associates discussed that morning on Fox & Friends — and tagged it “@FBI,” apparently indicating he wants the FBI to, I guess, look into it?
The broader context here is that the president is trying, with the help of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Fox News, to change the subject from the multiple investigations into whether his associates or campaign coordinated with Russia by whipping up a counter-scandal where he, Donald Trump, is the victim.
Indeed, this was only the latest in a series of Trump tweets over the past few days complaining that improper surveillance against his team by the previous administration was “the real story” (in contrast to the Russia scandal, which he says is “fake”).
What the Fox News story claims
Still, government officials seem to have gone to work trying to dig up something, anything, that could be used to publicly bolster Trump’s case that there was improper surveillance of some kind related to his associates.
What they’ve come up with, as seen in apparently White House–sourced public statements by Nunes and leaks to sympathetic outlets like Fox, is this “unmasking” controversy. It is essentially about whether the names of Trump associates turned up during legal surveillance of foreigners were too widely shared in the government.
At this point, we have very few details on what exactly happened with this “unmasking,” with most leaks about it coming from sources sympathetic to Trump. It’s of course possible that something improper went on. It’s also possible what happened was legitimate.
The Fox report Trump is publicizing, from Fox News’s Malia Zimmerman and Adam Housley, claims that Nunes now knows which intelligence official was responsible for the unmasking. (A newer report from Eli Lake of Bloomberg View claims it was National Security Adviser Susan Rice.) The Fox report further claims that some of the information came from foreign targets “spied on long before Trump became the GOP presidential nominee in mid-July.”
But Trump has decided to twist this in a misleading way. “Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends. ‘Spied on before nomination.’ The real story,” he tweeted Monday morning. This could be read to suggest that Fox reported Trump’s team was spied on before he was nominated. But the report in fact says it was likely foreign targets who were spied on. So while we don’t yet know the full story here, we do know that Trump is already distorting it to try to help himself out politically.
What “unmasking” actually means
Here’s some more background on what’s actually being discussed in the unmasking controversy. When US intelligence wiretaps foreign officials, and those foreign officials speak to a US citizen, that US citizen’s name is supposed to be “masked”: referred to only by descriptors (like “US Congressman #1” or “Trump staffer #3”) in the transcripts rather than their name. This process, called “minimization,” is designed to prevent legal surveillance on foreigners being used as a back door to spy on specific US citizens and to make it harder for the names of individuals picked up incidentally to leak.
Nunes is arguing that Trump associates were improperly unmasked, and that’s why he had to go meet Trump officials on White House grounds late at night to review raw intelligence with a White House staffer (who, incidentally, was Nunes’s former lawyer). The Fox News report also raises the possibility that the unmasking was done for political purposes, essentially as an intelligence community or Obama administration plot against the president — a charge Trump echoed in a tweet:
Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends. "Spied on before nomination." The real story.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2017
But Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, made the case on CNN this Sunday that the way Nunes has handled this controversy — by meeting with White House officials secretly and going public — suggests his concerns are more political:
In the ordinary course of what we do as an oversight committee, we look at exactly these issues. If the White House had any concern about whether minimization was used properly, whether unmasking was used properly ... that is material that should be given to us in the ordinary course of affairs. It doesn’t need to be done by night, through stealth. The only reason to do that, again, is if you want to hide where these materials are really coming from and who’s behind it. Part of the reason why that was done was this effort to deflect this attention from the Russia investigation.
Unmasking is, in fact, a serious matter. But if that was what the White House and Nunes were really worried about, it’s hard to see why they didn’t go through normal oversight channels and provide the intelligence to the entire House and Senate intelligence committees before going public.
The fact that they didn’t — that the information was secretly leaked by White House staffers to Nunes, who subsequently went public and strongly implied he didn’t get the information from the White House — suggests that unmasking is not the real issue here, and that Nunes was instead using the deliberately confusing phrase to muddy the waters and try to appear that the information vindicated Trump’s original baseless wiretapping claim. To be very clear: It doesn’t.
Obamacare repeal: dead or not dead?
Our daily politics news roundup will check in on several other big stories, so here’s a look at what else is in the news.
As the unmasking tweets show, when Trump is unhappy with an unfavorable narrative about him or his administration in the media, he often uses his Twitter account to try to put out a counternarrative that he prefers.
And he tried to do a similar thing this weekend with health reform:
Anybody (especially Fake News media) who thinks that Repeal & Replace of ObamaCare is dead does not know the love and strength in R Party!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 2, 2017
Talks on Repealing and Replacing ObamaCare are, and have been, going on, and will continue until such time as a deal is hopefully struck.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 2, 2017
Trump has been slammed with negative coverage over the failure of the House GOP’s health bill, and we know he hates seeming like a loser. So he is now attempting to claim that that repeal and replace isn’t dead after all (even though his own advisers told Congress that he’d move on to other issues if the bill failed).
The question is whether Trump actually is planning to take a serious run at health reform again, or if he’s just trying to make it seem like he is because he’s sick of negative coverage for having failed.
Now, Trump went golfing with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a harsh critic of the American Health Care Act, on Sunday. Afterward, Paul said, “We did talk about some health care reform. I think the sides are getting closer and closer together. And I remain very optimistic that we will get an ObamaCare repeal.”
Still, Congress has a crowded legislative schedule, and GOP leaders have signaled that they’ll move on to other things. And it remains very hard to see how Republicans can come up with a health plan that meets the diametrically opposed demands of the Freedom Caucus (which wants more of Obamacare repealed) and the Coverage Caucus (which is worried about too many people losing coverage). So wait for something more substantive before jumping to the conclusion that health reform truly is back on the agenda.
Today’s Trump reads
- “Kushner’s privileged status stokes resentment in White House”: “In addition to being arguably the president’s most trusted and influential adviser, Kushner also serves as Trump’s unofficial hatchet man. And all eyes are on Kushner as White House insiders predict a broader staff shakeup amid rising tensions between Kushner and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.” —Josh Dawsey, Kenneth Vogel, and Alex Isenstadt, Politico
- “Trump, Reshaping Syria Policy, Sets Aside Demand for Assad’s Ouster”: “By the end of Mr. Obama’s second term, as U.S. diplomatic efforts faltered, his administration acknowledged that Mr. Assad likely would remain in power, possibly through a political transition. But even then, they said Mr. Assad couldn't be part of a new, post-transition, government in Syria. By contrast, the Trump administration’s policy, articulated by top officials, has excluded any judgment on Mr. Assad’s future role.” —Felicia Schwartz, Wall Street Journal
- “Donald Trump in his own words”: “Our [healthcare] plan is going to be a very good plan. When I say our plan, not phase one just: phase one, two and three added up is a great plan. ... If we don’t get what we want, we will make a deal with the Democrats and we will have in my opinion not as good a form of healthcare, but we are going to have a very good form of healthcare and it will be a bipartisan form of healthcare.” —Financial Times interview with the president