WASHINGTON — Susan E. Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, denied any wrongdoing Tuesday after reports that she sought during last year’s campaign to learn the identities of associates of President Donald Trump caught up in electronic surveillance of foreigners.
Rice said that she sometimes asked for the names of Americans whose identities were redacted in intelligence reports given to her in order to understand the context of what was going on. The purpose, she said, was “to do our jobs,” but “absolutely not for any political purpose, to spy, expose, anything.”
She added that she never made public the identities of any associates of Trump mentioned in intelligence surveillance. “I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would,” Rice told the journalist Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.
The comments were Rice’s first public response to Republicans who have argued that “the real story,” as Trump put it, is not the FBI investigation into contacts between his associates and Russia but the conduct of the Obama administration.
Trump said on Monday that he was the target of a “crooked scheme” by Obama’s team, and he followed up on Tuesday by retweeting a link from the Drudge Report, “RICE ORDERED SPY DOCS ON TRUMP?”
The president’s allies have seized on reports by conservative media representatives to focus attention on Rice.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called such reports a “smoking gun” and said she should be subpoenaed to testify. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Congress should look into the reports. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., pointed to the dispute over Rice’s role in characterizing the attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other U.S. officials in 2012.
“Susan Rice is the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy,” Cotton said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. “Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it.”
Asked about that comment by Mitchell, Rice dismissed it as partisan politics. “I’ve been called a lot of things by folks on the right that are unfair and disingenuous,” she said. “This is not the first.”
Where Republicans detect scandal, Democrats see a smoke screen. Trump and his allies have been looking for indications of wrongdoing by Obama’s team for a month since the president accused his predecessor of tapping telephones at Trump Tower during last year’s campaign. No evidence has publicly surfaced to substantiate that claim, and it has been widely denied by Obama, the FBI director, the former director of national intelligence and congressional leaders of both parties.
Attention turned this week to Rice. As the national security adviser, she received intelligence briefings six days a week.
Last year, during the campaign, some of Trump’s associates were caught up in eavesdropping of foreign officials. When Americans who are not the target of a warrant are mentioned in reports about such surveillance, their identities are obscured, and they are typically referred to as U.S. Person One or U.S. Person Two.
But officials, like the national security adviser, can request that the intelligence agencies provide the names, a process called unmasking.
Former national security officials have said that Rice was justified in asking for names of Trump associates referred to in the reports that intelligence agencies sent to her last year. The White House was concerned about attempts by the Russian government to interfere in the election, and she had an obvious need to be fully informed as the official who coordinated U.S. relations with Russia, they said.
While not commenting specifically on anyone she might have asked to be unmasked, Rice said in her interview Tuesday that the Russian meddling was a serious issue.
“It was a grave concern to all of us in the national security team of the president and to the president himself,” she said. “We took this issue very seriously. We thought it was crucial to defend the integrity of our election process.”
She added: “For us not to try to understand it would be a dereliction of duty.”
White House aides dismissed Rice’s comments Tuesday. “Lyin’, leakin’ Susan Rice stammered through her soft ball interview with Dem PR person Andrea Mitchell,” Dan Scavino Jr., the White House social media director, wrote on Twitter.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said at his daily briefing that revelations about Rice’s actions seemed to contradict her previous public comments.
After Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced last month that he had seen reports indicating that Trump or his associates may have been “incidentally” swept up in the monitoring of foreigners, Rice told PBS: “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”
Spicer suggested that Rice was not forthcoming. “She was the one who went out and said, quote, that she had nothing to do with this on a program a few weeks ago and now you see more and more reports,” he told reporters.
“It’s not for me to decide who should testify or how they should do it,” Spicer added. “But I do think that there’s a sharp contrast between a few weeks ago when she was very public in saying she, quote, didn’t have any clue what Chairman Nunes was talking about. And yet now, we’re finding out that she’s trying to figure out some kind of friendly way of discussing this.”
The link that Trump retweeted on Tuesday referred to a report in The Daily Caller, a conservative website, that quoted Joseph E. diGenova, a former U.S. attorney, saying that Rice ordered “detailed spreadsheets” of legal telephone calls involving Trump and his aides during the campaign.
DiGenova was quoted saying that the overheard conversations involved no illegal activity. “In short, the only apparent illegal activity was the unmasking of the people in the calls,” he said.
The article did not say how diGenova, a Republican appointee who left his position as a prosecutor in 1988, knew this. But in her interview, Rice said it was not true.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “No spreadsheet, nothing of the sort.”
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