Trump's 'Obamagate' conspiracy theory just got blown to pieces

ssheth@businessinsider.com (Sonam Sheth)
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President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama in 2017.

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  • President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have in recent weeks latched onto a vague conspiracy theory, dubbed Obamagate, that centers on former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

  • It accuses Obama administration officials of improperly "unmasking" Flynn's name in intelligence reports monitoring former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak's communications.

  • But a Washington Post report on Wednesday blew up that allegation when it revealed that Flynn's name was never "masked" in the first place.

  • The Obamagate conspiracy theory also accuses former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden of having advance knowledge of the FBI's plans to interview Flynn about his communications with Kislyak.

  • But a newly declassified email appears to debunk that claim as well.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump, Republican lawmakers, and right-wing media personalities have in recent weeks latched onto a vague conspiracy theory accusing former President Barack Obama and his administration of masterminding the Russia investigation and engineering a "deep-state" campaign to undermine Trump's presidency before it even began.

The conspiracy, dubbed Obamagate, revolves around former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to one count of lying to the FBI as part of the bureau's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

Specifically, Flynn admitted to lying to investigators about a December 29, 2016 phone call with then Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, during which the incoming national security adviser asked that the Kremlin not retaliate against new sanctions Obama had levied against Russia, and suggested the Trump administration would be more receptive.

Obamagate accuses former Vice President Joe Biden and other Obama administration officials of improperly requesting that Flynn's name be "unmasked" in intelligence reports monitoring Kislyak's communications.

The conspiracy theory picked up steam last week when Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, declassified a list of Obama administration officials who made unmasking requests which included Flynn's name between November 30, 2016, and January 12, 2017. Biden was among the names on the list.

Trump and his allies seized on the development and said it showed Biden and others improperly and illegally unmasked the former national security adviser's identity.

But a Washington Post report on Wednesday blew up that allegation when it revealed that Flynn's name was never "masked" in the first place.

"When the FBI circulated [the report], they included Flynn's name from the beginning" because it was essential to understanding its significance, a former senior US official told The Post. "There were therefore no requests for the unmasking of that information."

Moreover, the list documented unmasking requests made through the National Security Agency, while transcripts documenting Flynn's conversations with Kislyak were an FBI product, meaning the names on the declassified list Grenell released are unrelated to Flynn's conversations with Kislyak.

The US intelligence community surveils hundreds of thousands of foreign targets per year, and "unmasking" is a routine and legal tool officials use to make more sense of the communications they're monitoring. The intelligence community gets thousands of unmasking requests a year.

The Obamagate theory also accuses Obama and Biden of having advance knowledge of the FBI's plans to interview Flynn about his communications with Kislyak during the 2017 presidential transition period.

That allegation centers on an Oval Office meeting that took place on January 5, 2017, and included Obama, Biden, then-national security adviser Susan Rice, then-FBI Director James Comey, and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.

Rice sent herself an email documenting the meeting afterward — known as a contemporaneous memo — and Trump and his Republican allies have seized on the email as evidence that Obama ordered the FBI to "spy" on the Trump campaign.

But the email, which was declassified in full this week (though much of it had already been declassified), appears to indicate otherwise.

During the meeting, according to Rice's email, Obama emphasized "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," the email said. "He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book."

Obama said, however, that from "a national security perspective," the outgoing administration should be "mindful" when sharing information about Russia with the incoming Trump administration, according to Rice's memo.

Comey then affirmed that he was proceeding "by the book" but said he was concerned about Flynn's frequent conversations with Kislyak and that the communications "could be an issue as it relates to sharing sensitive information."

Obama asked Comey if he was saying the National Security Council should not share sensitive intelligence about Russia with Flynn, to which Comey replied: "Potentially."

He added, however, that he had no information indicating that Flynn had passed any classified information to Kislyak, though their "level of communication" was "unusual," the memo said.

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