President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he believes former National Security Adviser Susan Rice broke the law in her handling of intelligence reports involving people associated with his campaign and transition, but some Republicans on Capitol Hill were less willing to leap to that conclusion.
“Do I think? Yes, I think,” Trump said when asked by the New York Times whether she committed a crime.
Rice reportedly sought the “unmasking” of the identities of people connected to Trump who were referenced in the documents. It is unknown whether those requests were granted, but it would likely have been completely legal unless she misused that information once she had it.
Trump has faced criticism since claiming without proof last month that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. Numerous officials and prominent Republicans have flatly denied that allegation.
The president has since seized on reports about incidental collection of information on his aides during surveillance of foreign targets and attempted to raise questions about damaging leaks of classified details from that intelligence.
Information about phone conversations between Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. was leaked to the media in January. That information contradicted public statements from the administration, ultimately leading to Flynn’s resignation.
No evidence has been made public that Rice leaked classified information or did anything illegal, but Republicans have demanded she explain her actions under oath.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., dismissed the furor over Rice as a distraction.
“We’ve seen this move before,” he said Wednesday. “Whenever President Trump doesn’t like how the headlines are going, he tries to shift attention. Susan Rice has made it very clear there’s nothing to this allegation.”
Rice defended herself in an interview with MSNBC Tuesday.
"The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes, " she said on "Andrea Mitchell Reports." "That's absolutely false."
Rice insisted it was not unusual or improper for a national security adviser to request the unmasking of U.S. persons referenced in intelligence documents in order to better understand them. There is a process for reviewing such requests, and experts say intelligence agencies require justification before granting them.
Rice also denied leaking information about the intelligence reports to the media.
"I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would," she said.
Rice and her defenders have emphasized the distinction between unmasking an identity, which would only make it available to the person requesting it, and leaking it to the public.
Cardin urged Congress to keep its eye on the ball as lawmakers continue to investigate Russian attempts to interfere with and influence the 2016 presidential election.
“The target needs to be Russia,” he said. “What was Russia trying to do in the United States? We need an independent investigation. We need to know what contacts were made with Americans and what that was all about. That’s the critically important factor for America’s security.”
The unmasking issue did come up in a closed hearing with the CIA director and director of national intelligence on Wednesday, according to Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., though he did not provide details.
Shelby did not accuse anyone specific of leaking information, but the fact that some details about Flynn’s calls spilled into the media suggests someone broke the law.
“If you leak somebody’s name like that and you unmask them, that’s clearly a violation of the law,” he said.
Shelby added that the FBI and Congress should look into the matter.
“I don’t know what happened but it ought to be investigated because it’s surely gone on,” he said.
Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., said he has “a lot of confidence” in the bipartisan investigation being conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee that is expected to cover Russian hacking and claims of inappropriate unmasking.
“I’m very confident they’re going to get to the bottom of all of these paths, wherever they lead, and get a report to the American people, I hope in very short order,” he said.
One member of that committee, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said they have much work left to do and many interviews to conduct, but he is not yet able to say much publicly about Rice.
Whatever his committee concludes, he does not expect the investigation to silence the conspiracy theories floating around on either side of the Russia debate.
“No matter what happens, there’s going to be conspirators out there writing books and theories and what have you, so it goes on for a long time,” he said.