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Trump, Republicans launch attack to reframe Russia investigation as ‘deep state’ plot


U.S. President Donald Trump and Republicans are launching a broad election-year attack on the foundation of the Russia investigation, including declassifying intelligence information to try to place senior Obama administration officials under scrutiny for routine actions.

The effort has been aided by a Justice Department decision to dismiss its prosecution of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, an action that rewrites the narrative of the case in a way that former federal law enforcement officials say downplays the legitimate national security concerns they believe Flynn’s actions raised and the consequences of the lies he pleaded guilty to telling.

The dismissal decision comes as Trump and his Republican allies push to reframe the Russia investigation as a “deep state” plot to sabotage his administration, setting the stage for a fresh onslaught of attacks on past and present Democratic officials and law enforcement leaders.

“His goal is that by the end of this, you’re just not really sure what happened and at some gut level enough Americans say, `It’s kind of messy,”’ said Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer.

The latest indication of that came Wednesday when two Republican critics of the Russia investigation, Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, disclosed a list of names of Obama administration officials who they say may have received Flynn’s identity from intelligence reports in 2016 and 2017. Among the names is Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, who was vice-president when the Russia probe began.

Names of Americans are routinely hidden, or minimized, in intelligence reports that describe routine, legal surveillance of foreign targets. U.S. officials must make a specific request if they want to know the person’s identity, or “unmask” them.

Biden and the other officials had full authority to seek the name of the unidentified American in the reports — it turned out to be Flynn — and did so through proper channels, according to Trump administration documents. Rather than reveal any actual wrongdoing, the release of the information by the president’s allies seems designed to create suspicion around Biden and other senior Democrats as the November election approaches.

Trump hyped the disclosure of the list with Biden’s name as a “massive thing.” But the Biden campaign dismissed the revelation, with spokesman Andrew Bates saying it simply indicates “the breadth and depth of concern across the American government” at the time about Flynn’s conversations with foreign representatives. None of the officials could have known beforehand that the unidentified person in the reports was Flynn, Bates said.

The requests for the information came as U.S. officials were scrutinizing Russian election interference on Trump’s behalf and trying to determine whether Trump associates were involved in that effort.

The issue has been politically charged since early 2017, when it was revealed that Flynn had discussed sanctions during the presidential transition period with Russia’s then-U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Flynn later pleased guilty to lying to the FBI about those talks with Kislyak.

U.S. officials may ask the National Security Agency to disclose to them the names of Americans who are swept up in the surveillance of foreigners and whose identities are concealed in intelligence reports if they believe the identity is essential in understanding the intelligence — and they do so thousands of times a year.

In fact, unmasking requests increased in the first years of the Trump administration from 2015-2016 totals during the latter years of the Obama administration, according to a government transparency report issued last month.

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