The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week authorized Chair Ron Johnson to issue subpoenas for more than 35 people connected to Crossfire Hurricane. Given the breadth of Spygate, it is unlikely Johnson’s committee will succeed in unpacking the totality of the misconduct. Three names on the list, however — Susan Rice, James Comey, and James Clapper — indicate Americans might soon learn more about any complicity by Barack Obama and Joe Biden in our country’s greatest political scandal.
Details released over the last month reveal President Obama and Vice President Biden knew more about the targeting of Trump transition team member Michael Flynn than previously realized. Several recently declassified documents, when read together, suggest Obama had a hand — and, at a minimum, Biden acquiesced in — the attempt to destroy Flynn and intrude upon the functioning of the new Trump administration.
Much of the declassified information concerns a Jan. 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting. According to the FBI’s 302 interview report, on that date, “Yates, along with then-FBI Director James Comey, then-CIA Director John Brennan, and then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were at the White House to brief members of the Obama Administration on the classified intelligence Community Assessment on Russian Activities in Recent U.S. Elections.” Rice, Obama’s then-national security adviser, and others were also present, including Biden, according to an email Rice later sent to herself.
According to Yates, “After the briefing, Obama dismissed the group but asked Yates and Comey to stay behind.” Then, “Obama started by saying he had ‘learned of the information about Flynn’ and his conversation with [Russian Ambassador Sergey] Kislyak about sanctions.” Yates’ 302 further stated, “Obama specified he did not want any additional information on the matter but was seeking information on whether the White House should be treating Flynn any differently, given the information.”
The mention of Flynn “and his conversation with Kislyak about sanctions,” was in reference to intercepted telephone calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador in late December and early January. However, as the now-declassified transcripts of those calls establish, Flynn did not discuss sanctions with Kislyak, but had instead discussed the Obama administration’s decision to expel Russian diplomats from the United States.
The distinction between sanctions and the expulsion of Russian diplomats proves significant to the criminal charge later wrongly levied against Flynn by the special counsel’s office. But it is Obama’s knowledge of the calls — and the details of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak — and not Obama’s misrepresentation of the content of those discussions that is important to understanding the then-president’s possible involvement in the soft coup attempt.
Unpacking Rice’s Jan. 20 Email
Yates’ 302 interview summary indicates it was Obama who raised the issue of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak. Also significant — as will be seen shortly — Yates told the FBI that Comey had raised the question of a Logan Act issue related to those conversations.
This new information raises more red flags about the email Rice sent herself on Inauguration Day because it conflicts with Rice’s spin on the meeting. On Jan. 20, 2017, as Trump was being sworn in as the 45th president and the Obama administration prepared to vacate the White House, Rice sent an email to herself purporting to summarize the Jan. 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting.
In her email, Rice wrote, “President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this 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.”
Rice’s email continued: “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.”
Rice then provided a brief summary of the supposed discussion that ensued between Comey and then-President Obama:
Director Comey affirmed that he is proceeding “by the book” as it relates to law enforcement. From a national security perspective, Comey said he does have some concerns that incoming NSA Flynn is speaking frequently with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. Comey said that could be an issue as it relates to sharing sensitive information. President Obama asked if Comey was saying that the NSC should not pass sensitive information related to Russia to Flynn. Comey replied “potentially.” He added that he has no indication thus far that Flynn has passed classified information to Kislyak, but he noted that “the level of communication is unusual.”
There is a lot to unpack in that email, especially when read together with the more recently declassified information.
Understanding Obama’s Role
Initially, when news of Rice’s Jan. 20 email broke, many observers noticed the timing was strange and saw the note as a blatant cover-Obama’s-butt attempt. It was unclear, however, how this email would be seen as protecting Obama. Rather than distance him from the scandal, it documented the former commander-in-chief’s knowledge and approval of the FBI director’s decision to withhold intel from the new Trump administration about a supposed Russian agent, Flynn. That fact alone was damning.
Yates’ statement to FBI agents suggests an even more appalling possibility: Obama knew the full details of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak and thus knew Flynn was not compromised.
Yet Obama directed (or permitted) Comey to pretend the intelligence community had legitimate concerns about Flynn, which the FBI used as a pretext to continue investigating him and to justify withholding information about those investigations from Trump. Then Rice composed a potentially misleading summary of the Jan. 5, 2017, meeting.
In her email, as excerpted above, Rice presented Comey, not Obama, as raising the topic of the Flynn-Kislyak calls. Rice’s email also framed Comey’s concerns about Flynn as involving “national security” issues and then attempted to bolster that supposed angle by noting that Comey “added that he has no indication thus far that Flynn has passed classified information to Kislyak, but he noted that ‘the level of communications is unusual.’”
In her interview, however, Yates said nothing about Comey raising concerns during the Jan. 5 meeting about Flynn and Russia. Rather, Yates remembers Comey raising a potential Logan Act issue, something Rice did not document in her parting email.
Mischaracterizing the Flynn Calls
Of course, the Logan Act issue was nonsense, which is likely why Rice omitted it from the email. But the exit email’s noted “national security” concern about Flynn was equally ridiculous. The recently released transcripts of Flynn’s calls with Kislyak prove that.
First, those transcripts show that the “level” of communication between Flynn and Kislyak was not unusual, but the result of Flynn being out of the country with a poor cell connection. The volume of calls included Flynn’s returned calls to the ambassador. Second, far from suggesting he was a compromised Russian agent, the transcripts revealed Flynn sought to put America’s interests first.
Do not let the Obama administration “box us in right now,” Flynn implored the Russian ambassador. Respond reciprocally to any expulsions, Flynn said, adding: “I really don’t want us to get into a situation where we’re going, you know, where we do this, and then you do something bigger, and then you know, everybody’s got to go back and forth and everybody’s got to be the tough guy.”
Respond to any expulsion on an “even-keeled” basis, Flynn requested, and “when we come in, we can then have a better conversation about where we’re gonna go regarding our relationship. And also, basically we have to take these enemies on that we have. And we definitely have a common enemy,” Flynn stressed, in the terrorists.
Any American reading the Flynn-Kislyak transcript in good faith would cheer Flynn’s words. While Obama sought to escalate tensions with Russia on his way out the door and “box in” the Trump administration, Flynn urged Russia to limit its response to the expulsions to prevent a ratcheting up of measures. Then, once the new administration came in, Trump’s team could discuss areas of common ground — specifically, fighting terrorism in the Middle East.
Reconciling Comey and Clapper’s Testimonies
No doubt Obama seethed at Flynn’s words. The outgoing president had attempted to goad Putin into a chilled tussle with America just before he abandoned the Oval Office to Trump. Comey’s now-released closed-door testimony detailed the Obama administration’s game, noting the administration was waiting “to see, how far will they go in retaliating to us, and then what will we do?”
But Putin merely swatted away Obama’s poke, while landing a body blow to the Democratic president’s ego. “The diplomats who are returning to Russia will spend the New Year’s holidays with their families and friends,” Putin said in a press release issued after Obama announced he was kicking out a group of 30-some Russian representatives. “We will not create any problems for US diplomats,” Putin added. “We will not expel anyone. We will not prevent their families and children from using their traditional leisure sites during the New Year’s holidays. Moreover, I invite all children of US diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin,” Putin announced.
Details from the declassified transcript of Comey’s congressional testimony reveal that following Putin’s response, and in “the last couple days of December and the first couple days of January, all the Intelligence Community was trying to figure out … why have the Russians reacted the way they did.”
“And so we were all tasked to find out” what prompted Putin’s response, Comey explained.
According to Comey, “that turned up these calls [between Flynn and Kislyak] at the end of December, beginning of January.” Comey noted that he briefed Clapper on the calls, with Clapper asking for copies of something related to the conversations — what exactly that was, though, was redacted.
Comey said he shared the unidentified material with Clapper, and further testified that in the first week of January 2017, Clapper briefed Obama and Biden “about what we had found and what we had seen to help them understand why the Russians were reacting the way they did.” Comey noted he had not disseminated the information “in any finished intelligence, although our people judged [it] was appropriate, for reasons that I hope are obvious, to have Mr. Flynn’s name unmasked.”
Given that Comey spoke of Flynn’s name as being “unmasked,” it seems likely that what Clapper requested, and what Comey provided, were transcripts or summaries of Flynn’s calls with Kislyak, which Clapper then handed off to the White House.
This reading of the transcript allows Comey’s testimony to be reconciled with Clapper’s testimony that he did not brief Obama on the Flynn-Kislyak call. If Comey provided Clapper with the transcript, and Clapper then shared it with Obama and Biden, that would explain how Obama knew about the details of the telephone calls, even though both Comey and Clapper testified under oath that they had not briefed Obama.
Piecing Together the Jan. 5 Meeting
No matter how Obama learned the details of the calls, he clearly knew them by the time he spoke with Yates and Comey on Jan. 5. And he clearly knew from those conversations that Flynn was no Russian agent.
Yet Obama directed Rice, through White House counsel, to draft the Jan. 20 email, which cast Comey’s Jan. 5 Obama briefing as suggesting Flynn was potentially a Russian agent. That slant, though, conflicts with Yates’ statement to the FBI that Comey spoke of a possible Logan Act issue.
Rice’s narrative is also at odds with Comey’s congressional testimony in two main ways. First, Comey noted that the president had mentioned Flynn’s communications with Kislyak, while Rice’s email indicated Comey had raised the issue with Obama.
Second, Comey’s congressional testimony suggests he only became concerned about the emails after they were publicly leaked and Trump administration officials began making contradictory statements about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak.
“Nothing, to my mind, happens until the 13th of January, when David Ignatius publishes a column that contains a reference to communications Michael Flynn had with the Russians,” Comey testified. It is hard to reconcile this testimony with Rice’s claim in her email that Comey had presented Flynn as a potential national security risk who might share classified information with Russia.
But had Comey briefed Obama, as Rice portrayed, why would he do so? Comey had access to the transcripts, which contained nothing that would indicate Flynn was a national security risk or potentially a Russian agent. Nothing in the transcripts justified a continued investigation of Flynn, much less the FBI questioning him Jan. 24, 2017.
So what was actually said at that Jan. 5 meeting? And who was privy to the conversations? Was Rice? Was Biden?
Was Rice’s Jan. 20 email blatantly false? If so, how much of the substance did she compose, compared to Obama’s wingmen?
Or had Comey presented Flynn as a potential Russian agent in his Jan. 5 briefing to Obama? If so, how could Comey justify that spin based on the transcripts? Was it Clapper who handed those transcripts off to the White House?
In short, what really went down at that Jan. 5, 2017, meeting?
Rice, Clapper, and Comey hold the answers to these questions and many others — as well as the Obama administration’s legacy and Biden’s political future.