The Trump transition team told Barack Obama’s White House about Mike Flynn’s fateful conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to a senior Obama aide’s new memoir. That account stands in contrast to oft-repeated claims that the Obama team unmasked Flynn’s name after learning of the Kislyak conversation from surveillance intercepts.
Ben Rhodes, an Obama deputy national security adviser and a long-time right-wing bête noire, often features prominently in accusations from Donald Trump’s allies that the outgoing White House improperly “unmasked” Flynn from surveillance intercepts and then leaked his name to discredit him. In October, Rhodes testified behind closed doors to the House intelligence committee probe controlled by Trump ally Devin Nunes about unmasking.
But in his just-released book, The World as It Is, the former senior National Security Council staffer writes that the Obama White House learned about the Flynn-Kislyak talks from the Trump team itself. If Rhodes’ claim is true, then Obama aides had no need to “unmask” any surveillance intercept of Kislyak’s phone calls to determine Flynn was the interlocutor.
Flynn “took a couple of weeks after his own appointment to accept Susan Rice’s invitation to meet,” Rhodes writes. “His own transition team volunteered to us that he’d met with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, before meeting with the American official he was replacing.”
Rhodes didn’t hear about that firsthand, he clarified, as the Trump transition team didn’t deal with Rhodes. (“You’re kind of PNG,” Rhodes quotes the outgoing Obama team’s transition director telling him, meaning ‘persona non grata,’ someone who is not welcome.) Instead, Rhodes’ White House colleagues informed him of the Trump team’s disclosure of the meetings.
“This was the first time I heard about Flynn talking to Kislyak,” Rhodes told The Daily Beast. “I never unmasked any Trump campaign official or associate—not a single time. The ‘unmasking scandal’ was a completely craven and disingenuous farce masquerading as outrage, all intended to keep Americans from focusing on the real story of the Trump campaign’s links to Russia.”
Rhodes said the Trump transition did not tell its Obama counterpart what Flynn discussed with Kislyak.
“This likely would not have been the conversation where they talked about our Russia sanctions, as that would have been later, but I learned about that from reading about it in a column by [Washington Post writer] David Ignatius,” Rhodes said.
Ignatius published that column on Jan. 12, 2017, citing a “senior U.S. government official” saying Flynn called Kislyak “several times on Dec. 29,” when Obama placed new sanctions on Russia and expelled Russian “diplomats” in retaliation for Russian election interference. Days later, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who ran the Trump transition team, incorrectly claimed on Face the Nation that Flynn “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.” The following month, after The Washington Post reported Flynn had indeed discussed Russia’s response to the sanctions with Kislyak, Trump fired Flynn, his first national security adviser, ostensibly for lying to Pence.
Asked about Rhodes’ claim, Pence’s office declined to comment. An attorney for Flynn, Robert Kelner, did not respond to a request for comment.
In December 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about Kislyak “telling him that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request,” according to court papers. Flynn agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in return for leniency.
The unmasking allegations have typically focused on Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser and Rhodes’ boss; Trump baselessly implied Rice is a criminal. Rice denied the allegations in an April 2017 interview with MSNBC, and specifically denied leaking Flynn’s name: “I leaked nothing to nobody.” Rice did not respond to messages seeking comment.
But Rhodes has been a target of the unmasking allegations as well. The Guardian and The New Yorker reported last month that the Israeli private-intelligence firm Black Cube, which was hired by Trump allies to find discrediting information on Rhodes as a supporter of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, was also tracking “rumors that Rhodes was one of the Obama staffers responsible for ‘unmasking’ Trump transition officials who were named in intelligence documents.”
Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee and a member of the Trump transition team, championed Flynn even after Trump fired him. At a March 20, 2017, committee hearing, Nunes’ GOP colleague Tom Rooney of Florida asked the NSA director: “Hypothetically, if the NSA obtained the communication of General Flynn while he was communicating with the surveillance target legally, would you please explain how General Flynn’s identity could be unmasked?”
Days later, Nunes subsequently attempted to pivot the Russia inquiry toward the unmasking allegations. In a dramatic press conference, Nunes accused U.S. surveillance of improperly incidentally collecting information on Trump aides before unnamed officials “unmasked” it—an accusation subsequently revealed to have come from the White House itself and laundered through Nunes. Nunes’ allegation conspicuously followed Trump’s baseless accusation that Obama had ordered the Trump campaign wiretapped, something then-FBI Director James Comey said at Nunes’ March 20, 2017, hearing was bogus.
In August, Nunes asked then-National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers to disclose how many “unmasking” requests Rhodes had made to the NSA. Sean Hannity of Fox News threatened to sue Rhodes, former national security adviser Susan Rice and anyone on the Obama team who might have placed Hannity under surveillance, despite admitting Hannity had no evidence for ever being under surveillance. (Rhodes had no authority to task the NSA to surveil anyone, let alone a specific American, a process requiring a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.)
After Rhodes testified to the House intelligence committee’s Russia inquiry in October, the GOP chairman of the inquiry, Texas’ Mike Conaway, said Rhodes had “answered my questions.”
Yet with Trump intensifying his counternarrative that he is the victim of a politically motivated “witch hunt”—that is, Mueller’s inquiry into his campaign’s ties to Russia—right-wing media continues to consider Rhodes a central figure in the imagined “unmasking” scandal. “The question remains what did [Obama] know, what did Kerry, what did Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes know,” Hannity mused on May 21.
The answer seems to be: what Trump’s own transition told Rhodes’ colleagues.