The Justice Department’s probe into whether officials in the Obama administration engaged in improper “unmasking” of members of the Trump administration came to a close recently, and federal prosecutors found that no substantive wrongdoing took place, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday. The revelation appears to be a clear setback for President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress, many of whom had echoed the president’s claims that unlawful “spying” on his campaign constituted “Obamagate”—the worst scandal in U.S. political history.
Unmasking is an intelligence community term which refers to the common practice of revealing the identity of someone on a monitored communication, usually to provide intelligence officials with more context of the information.
People said to be “familiar with the matter” told the Post that now former U.S. Attorney John Bash did not recommend bringing any criminal charges in the matter. Additionally, the DOJ declined to publish a public report on Bash’s findings—telling when you consider that 1) the “unmasking” controversy was characterized by Republican politicians and the president as particularly damning evidence of Watergate 2.0; and 2) evidence to support that would be helpful to the president’s reelection campaign.
According to the Post, “people familiar with [Bash’s] findings say they would likely disappoint conservatives who have tried to paint the ‘unmasking’ of names — a common practice in government to help understand classified documents — as a political conspiracy.”
Bash was appointed by U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr as recently as May to “support” U.S. Attorney John Durham in investigating the unmasking of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, whose criminal case is remains ongoing despite the DOJ’s motion to dismiss charges. Bash said last week that he was leaving the DOJ for the private sector; he will be replaced as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas by Barr’s former counselor Gregg Sofer.
The highly controversial review of Obama-era officials was derided by Democrats who said it further evinced the administration’s politicization of the DOJ. Republicans meanwhile had generally backed Trump, who dubbed the purported scandal “Obamagate,” saying it was “the biggest political crime in American history” and that it “makes Watergate look small-time.”
OBAMAGATE makes Watergate look small time!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 11, 2020
“I think that this will not end just with firings. I believe there are people who will go to jail,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said of the unmasking allegations in an interview with Fox News.
“I no longer hold out hope there is an innocent explanation for the information the public has seen. I have long said it is worse than Watergate,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said the “unmasking is a massive thing.”
"The unmasking is a massive thing," Trump said earlier this year.
"Bigger than Watergate," said Sen. John Cornyn.
But the Barr probe that was supposed to back up these claims has instead folded without a peep. https://t.co/3ZA7dQq6HM
— Greg Miller (@gregpmiller) October 14, 2020
“Bigger than Watergate,” Cornyn added.
Attorneys and political journalists were quick to point out that the real scandal may have been opening the probe in the first place, thereby allowing it to become a GOP talking point untethered from the realities of “unmasking.”
“There does need to be accountability—accountability for those who weaponized intelligence, maligned public servants, & vilified routine, if highly regulated, practices that help to keep us safe,” wrote former CIA officer Ned Price.
There does need to be accountability—accountability for those who weaponized intelligence, maligned public servants, & vilified routine, if highly regulated, practices that help to keep us safe.
We can accomplish that on November 3. https://t.co/wvJaI0Peuu
— Ned Price (@nedprice) October 13, 2020
“The ‘unmasking’ probe has been unmasked—as an empty exercise,” said NBC News national security correspondent Ken Dilanian.
The “unmasking” probe has been unmasked—as an empty exercise. https://t.co/tWjyUheTJY
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) October 13, 2020
MSNBC legal analyst and former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance questioned whether Barr was attempting to conceal the news for political purposes by waving the white flag on the unmasking issue during the Amy Coney Barrett hearings.
Is Barr trying to hide this news in the middle of Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearing: ‘Unmasking’ probe commissioned by Barr quietly concludes without charges or any public report. https://t.co/BunRUEq7uq
— Joyce Alene (@JoyceWhiteVance) October 13, 2020
Many other reactions from analysts and journalists echoed the above.
Speaking of which: Barr has spent millions of $$$ to investigate "unmasking," on the premise that any investigation of Flynn was completely unwarranted.
How about they declassify the NSA intel which prompted so many unmasking requests so the public can know what he was up to? https://t.co/CBql65U3EF
— Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_) October 14, 2020
Another conspiracy theory debunked, now crickets from those who promoted it.
‘Unmasking’ probe commissioned by Barr quietly concludes without charges or any public report – The Washington Post https://t.co/KqQMVBROQc
— Don Lemon (@donlemon) October 13, 2020
It was like chasing unicorns through the Land of Oz. https://t.co/reQT6K0EGt
— Dan Rather (@DanRather) October 13, 2020
What a politically driven waste of DOJ resources. https://t.co/7pGb1xzyDR
— Sam Vinograd (@sam_vinograd) October 14, 2020
b-b-b-b-but devin nunes told me this was the greatest scandal of all time https://t.co/jMSRUxuRxa
— Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) October 14, 2020
This news comes not long after it was reported that John Durham’s probe will not yield a report, conclusions or indictments in time for the election.
[Image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
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