For a president who has a uniquely hostile relationship with the press, positive news cycles are both rare and fleeting. The Trump team displayed remarkable discipline by refusing to step on the president’s well-received address to a joint session of Congress. A lot of good discipline did them. Just 24 hours after Trump’s address, a series of troubling reports involving links among those in Trump’s orbit to Russian officials reset the national discourse. Those stories make for a trend, though, that has little to do with Trump and a lot to do with his predecessor. The Obama administration’s foreign-policy team seems to be campaigning to rehabilitate itself one leak at a time, and the press is helping.
The frenzy on Wednesday night began with a revelation in the New York Times that members of Barack Obama’s administration had left a trail of breadcrumbs for investigators who happen to be looking into the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russian government. The report revealed that intelligence officials intercepted communications between Russian officials and “Trump associates,” and that the administration worked frantically in the final days to ensure those revelations could not be buried and forgotten after they left office.
More than six “former officials” described efforts to reduce the classification on some reports relating to Trump associates’ contact with Russians so they would be widely distributed. They also revealed their efforts to raise the classification level of some information related to Russia that was so sensitive they feared the Trump administration might leak it to Moscow. Some officials apparently even touted their efforts to ask leading questions during intelligence briefings so their questions would be transcribed and archived, leaving clues for congressional investigators should they ever come looking for them.
The Times report revealed that a “former senior American official” disclosed that Jeff Sessions had met with “Russian officials.” The Washington Post confirmed that Sessions took a private meeting with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak, appearing to contradict testimony Sessions provided to the Senate. The controversy whipped up around the discrepancy between Sessions’ confirmation-hearing testimony, and these reports have resulted in Democrats calling for his resignation and Republicans running for cover.
Though it received less attention amid the flurry of reports involving Team Trump’s connections to the Kremlin, the Washington Post published another story involving the decision-making process that led up to the Yemen raid. That raid, in which Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was killed, an Osprey helicopter was lost, and up to 31 Yemeni civilians died, cannot be said to have gone according to plan. This report alleges that the plan might have been the problem.
The report quoted former advisor to Vice President Joe Biden on national security, Colin Kahl, who averred that the raid was the result of an Obama administration-era initiative expediting the approval of partnered ground operations. Yet, this raid was greenlit as a result of “a more abbreviated White House process.” Kahl took particular issue with the revelation that a sub-Cabinet level meeting on the raid—a meeting scheduled after the raid had been approved by the president and following a variety of briefings on the mission—lasted less than an hour. “You can’t cover the complexity of a topic like that in 23 minutes,” he declared. Other “former officials” quoted in that piece criticized the raid for straining relations with the Yemeni government. In sum, the Obama administration deserves all the credit for what went right in Yemen and none of the blame for what went wrong.
At least a few of these “former officials” who so freely offer reporters at the Times and the Post intimate details about the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy are members of the infamous gang of nine. These officials within the Obama administration’s intelligence apparatus confirmed to the Post that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had misled Mike Pence when he said he did not discuss the Obama-era sanctions regime in his phone conversations with Kislyak. As the Times revealed last night, federal officials monitored those calls, transcribed the conversations, and related the substance to the press.
There is an assumption permeating these reports: that those unnamed Obama-era officials are selflessly sacrificing in the effort to prevent the Trump administration from undermining American national security. Some have even dedicated themselves to creating an elaborate Da Vinci Code for future scavenger hunters to decipher. More likely, the Obama administration’s foreign policy professionals are doing their best to retroactively vindicate themselves after leaving office under a cloud of mistrust. In their effort to self-aggrandize at the expense of the current administration, these rogue officials have found willing partners in the press.
The Obama administration was engaged in narrative manipulation surrounding Russia’s intervention into the election process even in its final hours. It was an effort to assuage the concerns of those on the left who were vocally critical of Barack Obama’s hands-off approach to Russian intervention in the political process. By December of 2016, sources within the foreign-policy establishment had begun anonymously indicting the Obama administration over its lethargy. Capitol Hill Democrats and Clinton campaign officials were second-guessing the White House. Obama’s deference was as much caution as it was a continuation of a longstanding effort to avoid antagonizing Russia to ensure their cooperation with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal—that administration’s signature foreign-policy achievement.
Media wants to draw blood from the White House. The Obama foreign-policy team wants vindication. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. “Former officials” have now put Jeff Sessions in the dock and threaten to engulf the president himself in a scandal over the death of a U.S. serviceman in a botched raid. All the while, they are presented as noble whistleblowers working toward the best interests of the American people.
None of this is to say that the information being provided to the press is inaccurate or that its release to the public isn’t of value, though criticizing the administration for not deliberating long enough on a subject that the president has already decided upon falls flat. This is not a “shadow government.” Yet, it is also clearly valuable for Obama administration officials to clear the cloud of suspicion that hangs over its final days, particularly among dispirited Democrats who regard its sluggishness with regard to Russia as a dereliction. The press, in its zeal to take the Trump administration down a peg, is the perfect venue through which to mount a rehabilitation campaign. There’s a lot of bait out there, and everyone seems to have bitten.