by Robert Romano
“We learned about it when it was in the report that was appended to the report to Congress at the end of the administration.”
That was former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes speaking to PJ Media’s Nicholas Ballasy on April 25 at Georgetown University promoting his new memoir of his time in the Obama administration, denying that the White House had any knowledge prior to Jan. 5, 2017 of the dossier by former British spy Christopher Steele that was commissioned by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton campaign that was utilized by the Justice Department to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant in Oct. 2016 to spy on the Trump campaign. It had that alleged President Donald Trump was a Russian agent and that the Trump campaign had coordinated the DNC hacking and putting its emails onto Wikileaks with Russia.
Those were crimes, we now know from the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report to Attorney General William Barr, which were never committed. Per Mueller, “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
The FISA warrant gave investigators access to Trump campaign emails, phone calls, text messages and other communications. But Rhodes said the President was unaware of the spying warrants that allowed the FBI to investigate the Trump campaign and to the conduct the surveillance: “We didn’t even know there was an FBI investigation of Trump. I didn’t. President Obama didn’t, like, we actually abided by the firewalls between — if there were any investigations that took place, those decisions were made in the Justice Department, in the FBI, not in the White House.”
Rhodes said he learned about the investigation after Trump was inaugurated, stating, “I learned about the FBI investigation of Trump as a private citizen in the frickin’ Washington Post.”
A Jan. 20, 2017 email from former National Security Advisor Susan Rice to herself on the day Trump was inaugurated detailed the Jan. 5, 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which the intelligence assessment by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Russian interference in the elections was briefed to the President. Rice wrote, “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.”
The email continued, “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. 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 Comey to inform him if anything changes in the next few weeks that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team. Comey said he would.”
Rhodes, notably, was not present by Rice’s account, and so what he knew and what Obama knew may not be the same thing. Note that in Rice’s account Obama was concerned that anything by law enforcement be handled “by the book.” Obama also spoke of reasons why the incoming President and his national security team should be kept out of the loop on matters related to Russia. The follow-up conversation was with former FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who both signed the Oct. 2016 FISA warrant against then-Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, and who handle domestic matters. If Obama had not yet been briefed on the FBI investigation of Trump up until that point — unbelievable, but let’s play along — this would have been the moment to tell him.
Taken at face value, Comey, Yates and in extension Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whose name also appears on the FISA warrant, authorized electronic surveillance (i.e. spying) on the Trump campaign.
And President Obama was in the dark about it while it was going on by Rhodes’ account, and may not have been brought into the loop until Jan. 5, 2017 per Rice’s account, when he was briefed on Russian interference into the election.
In this version of the story, the surveillance was ordered by the Justice Department and the intelligence agencies acting on their own at the behest of the DNC and the Clinton campaign, and it was shielded from political oversight by the elected President because, as Rhodes described, “we actually abided by the firewalls” between the President and the Justice Department.
If anything, considering Mueller found no coordination or conspiracy between Trump, his campaign or any American and Russia to interfere in the election — that the three-year investigation into Russia and then Trump was for a crime the President never committed — this speaks to why it is crystal clear the President must be involved with anything related to domestic counterintelligence. We need political oversight. Whatever oversight occurred here was woefully inadequate. The sources the FBI relied on were from Steele’s second-hand and third-hand “sub-sources,” according to the FISA warrant. Comey later testified in Jan. 2017 that it was “salacious and unverified,” and yet they still used it!
Because this confirms our worst fears. If what Rhodes says is true, you had a rogue Justice Department and intelligence community using unvetted political opposition “research” to engage in political spying on the opposition party in an election year while keeping the President out of the loop. This is beyond incompetence. This is negligence with the most powerful surveillance system in the world.
James Comey was fired as FBI Director for lying to President Trump about the extent of the investigation into a crime that was not committed. Now we know, thanks to Rhodes, that he was absolutely justified to fire him under these circumstances. Obama was not keeping an eye on him. Trump was also right to consider removing Special Counsel Mueller for continuing the investigation.
Here’s why. We have one president at a time. Under Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, it clearly states “The executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States of America.”
In the Federalist No. 70, Alexander Hamilton argued there was a very good reason for a unitary executive, writing, “Wherever two or more persons are engaged in any common enterprise or pursuit, there is always danger of difference of opinion. If it be a public trust or office, in which they are clothed with equal dignity and authority, there is peculiar danger of personal emulation and even animosity. From either, and especially from all these causes, the most bitter dissensions are apt to spring.”
Hamilton warned, “Whenever these happen, they lessen the respectability, weaken the authority, and distract the plans and operation of those whom they divide. If they should unfortunately assail the supreme executive magistracy of a country, consisting of a plurality of persons, they might impede or frustrate the most important measures of the government, in the most critical emergencies of the state. And what is still worse, they might split the community into the most violent and irreconcilable factions, adhering differently to the different individuals who composed the magistracy.”
By dividing the executive power, as apparently Obama envisioned, created factions within the executive branch and the danger for this very sort of civil strife to occur. There were essentially two administrations of justice. This was never going to end well.
And so, what is to be done? Attorney General Barr must follow through on his promise to investigate the origins of this investigation. If the direction did not come from the White House, then it had to come from somewhere. Of course, what Obama and Biden knew and when they knew it is a key concern. President Trump should declassify everything that can be that sheds light on what happened here, and direct Barr and the intelligence agencies to make regulations and rules to prevent this from ever happening again, including making it mandatory to brief the President on every FISA warrant taken out against any U.S. citizen.
At the end of the day, this is the end result of a mass surveillance system that answers to no one, apparently not even the President. If this abuse of power can occur without presidential oversight, then the powers granted to these departments and agencies are far too great. At least if Obama knew, it would be a manageable problem wherein the American people could simply elect a better president next time. It would give the people a recourse. The worst case scenario is that something like this could happen without the President knowing. Constitutional government of the people, by the people and for the people will not long survive if we continue in this manner.
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Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.