GOP seeks to go on offense using Flynn against Biden

Two Senate committees are now investigating former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks Biden set to make risky economic argument against Trump Hillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel MORE’s role in the “unmasking” of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, as Republican senators seek to go on offense with an issue they think will damage the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee while helping them retain their majority. 

Republicans are seizing on a declassified National Security Agency document made public Wednesday showing that 39 former Obama administration officials in late 2016 and early 2017, including Biden, requested to know the identity of an American who had come up in intelligence briefings based on his conversations with then Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Flynn, a senior member of President-elect Trump’s national security team, was revealed to be that individual.

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Unmasking is a common practice in government; the National Security Agency reportedly approves several thousand such requests each year.

But President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 MORE and his allies have latched on to the issue as evidence Obama administration officials were seeking to torpedo his government before it took office.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonHouse chair threatens subpoenas if Pompeo doesn't provide Biden docs he gave Senate GOP Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Schumer dubs GOP 'conspiracy caucus' amid Obama-era probes MORE (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security panel, one of the two Senate committees conducting an investigation, wants to find out who in the Obama administration leaked to the media the gist of Flynn’s phone conversations with Kislyak — a revelation that embarrassed the nascent Trump administration and led to Flynn’s swift ouster.

“I certainly have suspected for quite some time that there was a concerted effort to sabotage this administration from the day after the election,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of questions that deserve answers.”

Republican lawmakers believe finding out who leaked would enable Trump and his allies to argue that Obama administration officials were listening in on Flynn’s calls not only out of concern for national security but also to collect political ammo.

“Why were there people all over the place unmasking conversations that Michael Flynn was involved in? What other unmaskings occurred during that same time?” Johnson asked.

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“What is the vice president doing requesting unmasking eight days before leaving office? He should have been gathering up his papers and figuring out what he was going to do in the next step in life?” he said.

The other Senate panel looking into the issue is the Judiciary Committee led by Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWhy do Americans worry about North Korea? Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Abrams announces endorsements in 7 Senate races MORE (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally who the president urged look into the issue.

“If I were a Senator or Congressman, the first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama. He knew EVERYTHING. Do it @LindseyGrahamSC, just do it,” Trump tweeted Thursday.

Graham said Obama was welcome to testify but that he did not plan on calling on him.

“I think the optics of it are pretty bad for Biden and for the Obama administration. Lindsey’s going to do some stuff, he’s going to run some things to ground on some of the stuff surrounding this and who knows what comes out of that,” said Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K MORE (S.D.), referring to Graham.

“I just think it’s something that probably dogs Biden and his campaign for a while. The idea that they would be trying to undermine an incoming administration as late in the game as January of 2017 is pretty hard to explain,” he added.  

The Senate is the only chamber of Congress held by Republicans, underscoring the effort's political importance for the party.  

Republican anxiety over keeping the Senate majority has risen in the last few weeks amid the twin economic and health crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and polls showing a number of sitting Republican senators in tight races.

Republicans are pulling a page from a political playbook they used successfully against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff MORE in the 2016 presidential campaign, when they waged a multi-year House investigation into the 2011 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, to unleash a controversy over Clinton’s use of a private email server.

“You’re starting to see a pattern that the Trump campaign would like to make, and that is Biden is a fraud and a hypocrite who is not up to the task of being president,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, summarizing the political strategy.

A spokesman for Biden’s campaign dismissed the disclosure as a brazen political ploy.  

“Donald Trump’s attempt at dishonest media manipulation to distract from his response to the worst public health crisis in 100 years has backfired,” said Andrew Bates.

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Bates said documents reflecting requests by multiple senior Obama administration officials to review Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak showed “the breadth and depth of concern across the American government — including among career officials — over intelligence reports of Michael Flynn’s attempts to undermine ongoing American national security policy through discussions with Russian officials or other foreign representatives.”

The NSA document released publicly on Wednesday shows Biden or a staff member requested on Jan. 12, 2017, to unmask Flynn’s identity in an intercepted call with Kislyak.

The document reveals 38 other senior Obama administration officials or someone on their staffs also requested to review records related to Flynn’s calls with Kislyak, including former Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperSenate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Trump cites 'Obamagate' in urging GOP to get 'tough' on Democrats 'Obamagate' backfires: Documents show Biden, Obama acted properly MORE, former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanSusan Rice calls for Flynn-Kislyak transcripts to be released Trump cites 'Obamagate' in urging GOP to get 'tough' on Democrats Graham announces vote on subpoenas for Comey, Obama-era intel officials MORE, and former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughSusan Rice calls for Flynn-Kislyak transcripts to be released GOP seeks to go on offense using Flynn against Biden Tucker Carlson: Flynn case was domestic spying operation 'hidden under the pretext of national security' MORE.

The Biden campaign on Friday also pointed to an analysis in The Washington Post reporting that two people involved in Trump’s reelection campaign said the effort was designed to weaken Biden and smear former President Obama, who will be one of Biden’s most important surrogates on the campaign trail.

The same article referenced by the Biden campaign also noted the similarities between Trump’s recent call on Senate Republicans to investigate “Obamagate” and his demand four years ago that Clinton be locked up over her use of an email server.

There is no evidence that during the 2016 presidential campaign Obama was involved in the FBI’s investigation into interactions between Trump’s advisers and Russian officials. The New York Times reported Thursday that Obama wasn’t told until January 2017 of phone calls between Flynn and Kislyak.

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Graham on Thursday announced he would begin holding “multiple, in-depth” hearings in June on “all things related to Crossfire Hurricane,” the FBI’s investigation in 2016 and 2017 of links between Trump’s advisers and Russian officials, which later evolved into former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian agents.

Phase one of Graham’s investigation will include “an in-depth analysis of the unmasking requests made by Obama administration officials against General Flynn.”

“We must determine if these requests were legitimate,” Graham said in a statement.

Johnson says he will seek interviews with senior officials such as Clapper, Brennan, McDonough and “possibly” Biden as part of his own investigation.

“I’ve talked to my staff about hopefully preparing for interviews of some of these individuals, just find out what was all this about. I’d like to do that at some point in time when we return from our [Memorial Day] recess,” he said. “Those are the folks at the top of the food chain. You kind of scratch your head and say, ‘What were you after?’”