President Trump on Thursday lashed out at President Obama’s top national security aide amid reports she acknowledged to congressional investigators that she sought classified information on senior members of his staff during the presidential transition because of suspicions over a prominent Gulf sheikh’s secret visit to Manhattan.
“She’s not supposed to be doing that, and what she did was wrong,” Mr. Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One while returning from a tour of Hurricane Irma damage in Florida. “We’ve been saying that. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The admission would appear to give credence to assertions by Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and other congressional Republicans that the Obama White House was improperly using sensitive intelligence information in the charged atmosphere when the controversy over suspected Russian meddling in the presidential election in favor of Mr. Trump was heating up.
For months, Susan E. Rice has faced charges that she and other Obama aides “unmasked” — or learned the redacted identities — of Trump associates swept up in U.S. surveillance operations against foreign targets. She has denied any wrongdoing or any knowledge of unmasking abuses and said any unmasking requests were part of her normal job as head of the National Security Council.
The White House has embraced the unmasking story to back Mr. Trump’s Twitter claim that Mr. Obama attempted to wiretap New York City’s Trump Tower building during and after last year’s presidential campaign. It is a central piece of Mr. Trump’s overall argument that the entire Russian collusion probe is “a witch hunt.”
CNN first reported Thursday that Ms. Rice told a closed-door session of the House intelligence committee last week about an unmasking incident in December.
The incident in question was a meeting before Mr. Trump’s inauguration that included the United Arab Emirate’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Trump strategist Steve Bannon; the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and Michael Flynn, a top defense adviser to Mr. Trump and later, briefly, his national security adviser in the White House.
The UAE sheikh’s meeting came before a separate effort by the influential Arabian Gulf country to open up a back-channel line of communication between Russia and the incoming Trump White House.
According to CNN, sources familiar with the meeting said Obama White House officials felt the UAE was breaking diplomatic protocol by not notifying U.S. government officials of the crown prince’s trip to New York. This sparked Ms. Rice’s inquiries into intelligence reports of the meeting and who was there.
The combative former national security adviser has long insisted that any unmasking was for legitimate security purposes. Last week, she reportedly denied ever leaking any unmasked names. Ms. Rice and the crown prince’s spokesperson have declined chances to speak on the record.
House intelligence committee member Michael K. Conaway, the Texas Republican now leading the investigation, reportedly said he saw no reason to pose additional questions to Ms. Rice.
“She was a good witness, answered all our questions,” he was quoted as saying. “I’m not aware of any reason to bring her back.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and former prosecutor, agreed that Ms. Rice had not engaged in improper unmasking or leaking of names. “Nothing that came up in her interview that led me to conclude that,” he told The Daily Caller.
Mr. Nunes, by contrast, has focused on leaks of sensitive classified information and the unmasking issue. He has expressed concern that the Obama White House was acting to help the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
On Thursday, the committee’s lead Democrat, Adam B. Schiff of California, told The Washington Times that the unmasking narrative was a distraction to the panel’s overall inquiry.
He recently said Mr. Nunes has pushed the “whole unmasking inquiry” to bolster the president’s wiretapping claim and warned that committee infighting could mean members fail to provide Congress with a unified conclusion after months of investigation.
“There are some who will continue to push unmasking,” Mr. Schiff said. “Frankly, we should keep focused on what our investigation is designed to do.”
Investigators close to the unmasking issue vowed that the fight would continue.
More details of the December meeting of Mr. Bannon, Mr. Flynn, Mr. Kushner and the UAE crown prince are likely to soon emerge. They discussed Iran, Yemen and the Middle East peace process, but not a back channel with Russia, according to sources quoted by CNN.
That issue reportedly came up a month later in a secret meeting in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean when the UAE did broker a meeting to open lines of communications with the United States and Russia. Capitol Hill investigators are now scrutinizing the meeting.
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