Susan Rice’s name has been bandied about as Joe Biden’s running mate for a few months, but as of this week some might say that she is the clear frontrunner. There’s certainly a media blitz behind her, with articles in The Washington Post, New York Times, and Politico in the last several days.
At first, it may not be clear what she would bring to the campaign. She knows a lot about foreign policy—she served as Barack Obama’s former national security adviser and his first U.N. ambassador, and also served in the Bill Clinton administration’s State Department. But when picking a running mate, candidates usually look for people with additional gifts—and Biden himself has foreign affairs covered. He was a longtime member, and sometime chairman, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and was Obama’s point man on Iraq, Ukraine, and China.
Moreover, Rice has no regional constituency because she has never run for elected office. Critics say she’s abrasive, she swears like a sailor, and her most noteworthy interaction with the American public was when she lied to it that the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead was not a planned terror operation. Rather, according to Rice, it was the result of spontaneous anger about an anti-Islam video that appeared on YouTube.
So why is she up for the VP slot? According to The Washington Post, Biden feels comfortable with her because, says former Obama deputy Ben Rhodes, he started his White House mornings with Rice briefing him on intelligence matters and, according to the Post, Biden would occasionally stop by her office for “light banter.” She has also, as part of her audition for the No. 2 spot, been boosting her profile in the last few months. In April, she was named co-chair of the ReOpen DC Advisory Group, counseling her hometown of Washington, D.C.’s leadership on when and how to bring the capital out of the coronavirus lockdown. The random exceptions to last week’s mandatory mask order for D.C.—like “vigorous outdoor exercise” and “legally smoking”—suggests that Rice and her colleagues see the city’s troubled economic and social condition as a campaign instrument to be wielded against Donald Trump.
Since March, Rice has also contributed a steady, nearly twice monthly supply of op-eds to The New York Times. Most recently she attacked Trump by piggybacking on an anonymously sourced Times report claiming the president ignored intelligence showing Russian spies paid the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Senior U.S. officials said the report was false—the intelligence was never passed on to the president because it was not verified. Nonetheless, Rice used it as another opportunity to criticize Trump for supposedly being in Putin’s pocket.
So it’s possible that Joe Biden just really likes her, or that he learns from her op-eds, or appreciates the way she has already been attacking his opponent.
But there is another possible explanation that is worth considering, since it’s at least legally true: Putting Susan Rice on the ticket would protect both Biden and Obama (as well as Rice herself) from the ongoing investigation into the origins of Crossfire Hurricane, the discredited FBI probe of Trump’s ties to Russia.
As official reports hinting at the role Obama and Biden may have played in targeting Trump officials were declassified in the spring, Attorney General William Barr said in May that neither were in the sights of John Durham, the U.S. attorney in charge of the investigation. “I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man,” Barr said. “Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others.”
Since Barr’s May statement, it has come to light that Obama and Biden were more directly involved in the targeting of incoming Trump officials than was previously publicly known. In late June, FBI notes of January 2017 Oval Office meetings were declassified, showing that both men were not only keeping close watch on the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, but were advising it. A New York Times article from earlier this week promoting Rice’s audition obscured the evidence declassified in the last several months. It noted that Trump has accused Rice “of having participated in an Obama administration plot against” Flynn, and added that “no such effort has been documented.” Rice herself personally documented a meeting in which she, Obama, and Biden decided Flynn’s fate.
Presumably, Barr does not want America to take a step closer to resembling a third-world regime on his watch. And so, in order to avoid the appearance of a politicized investigation of senior Democrats in retaliation for what was in fact a politicized investigation of a Republican administration, neither Obama nor Biden are being investigated. But that does not mean that they are shielded if someone wants to save themselves by pointing further up the chain of command. And Rice left a paper trail that implicates herself, Obama, and Biden.
Nominating Rice as Biden’s VP would virtually ensure her immunity, protecting her from investigation or prosecution during the campaign. In February, Barr issued a memo stating that no investigation of a presidential or vice presidential candidate can be undertaken without his written approval. Because it is nearly inconceivable that Barr would expose himself to this type of scrutiny or risk compromising the election, Rice would be safe. Crucially, it would also cut off the investigation at the rung below her, thereby insulating Obama and Biden.
In May, the then acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, declassified Rice’s September 2017 congressional testimony, in which she recalls discussing China and Russia with her successor during the transition period. She said:
[Flynn’s] focus was on China as our principal overarching adversary. He had many questions and concerns about China. And when I elicited—sought to elicit his perspective on Russia, he was quite—I started to say dismissive, but that may be an overstatement. He downplayed his assessment of Russia as a threat to the United States. He called it overblown. He said they’re a declining power, they’re demographically challenged, they’re not really much of a threat, and then reemphasized the importance of China.
The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was, of course, correct, as Rice’s and Biden’s newfound focus on China shows. In deflecting attention from Beijing with the Russiagate conspiracy theory, Trump’s domestic adversaries did the Chinese Communist Party a priceless favor at the expense of U.S. strategic interests. It’s interesting to imagine how the last three-and-a-half years of U.S.-China conflict, including Beijing’s role in the global spread of the coronavirus, might have gone differently had the press not conspired with deskbound intelligence bureaucrats who saw Flynn as a threat to their prestige and budgets.
Contrary to the claims of former Obama officials and once reputable press organizations like The New York Times, Russiagate wasn’t sourced to genuine intelligence work or sober-minded analysis of threats to U.S. national security. It was a false-flag operation disguising the Obama administration’s illegal surveillance of its political opponents. Indeed, Rice herself, in her September 2017 testimony, swore under oath that she had seen no evidence—none—that Trump had colluded, or conspired, or coordinated, with Russia.
Further, Rice admitted that she had unredacted the identities of incoming Trump administration officials—Flynn, Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon—from transcripts of classified intercepts of Emirati ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. She said she was miffed that the Emiratis hadn’t alerted the Obama administration about MBZ’s visit—but that doesn’t explain why she unmasked the identities of Trump officials to learn who was saying what to MBZ.
It appears that Rice repurposed U.S. intelligence resources to spy on American citizens because she wanted to know how the incoming Trump administration’s foreign policy plans might upend Obama’s signature initiatives. In particular, she would have listened to their talks with America’s Arab Gulf allies because she wanted to know what the Trump team was saying about issues that mattered to the Arabs—like Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Susan Rice understood that Flynn’s conversations with foreign officials would give her direct insight into his boss’s thinking, just as her own conversations would have reflected Obama’s. She and Biden were, according to a list declassified in May, among the 40 Obama officials who spied on Flynn by unmasking his identity from classified intercepts.
The Obama team saw Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak as an especially important window into Trump’s thinking given the outgoing White House’s last-minute priorities. Obama was determined on his way out of office to stick it to Israel at the U.N., and the only thing standing between him and Benjamin Netanyahu’s rib cage was the man Kislyak answered to. For what Obama wanted to accomplish, he believed that Vladimir Putin’s vote on the U.N. Security Council could prove decisive.
At the end of May, Grenell declassified Flynn’s calls with Kislyak. In their Dec. 23, 2016, conversation, they spoke about a U.N. Security Council resolution regarding Israeli settlements that was engineered by the Obama administration but was sponsored by rotating members of the Security Council that the outgoing White House persuaded to bring to a vote.
Obama chose to hide behind smaller powers for good reason. Since the Cold War, a central plank of the U.S.-Israel alliance has been Washington’s use of its Security Council veto power to shoot down anti-Israel votes. But here was Obama pushing a resolution holding that Israel was illegally occupying Palestinian territories, including holy sites in Jerusalem. Moscow, as Kislyak told Flynn, had to support UNSCR 2334 since, unlike the United States, it had always backed the Arabs’ contention that Israel was illegally occupying Palestinian land.
But there was a second Obama anti-Israel resolution that Russia knocked down before it got to the U.N.—a plan to force Israel to agree to a Palestinian state based on the 1948 borders. As Israel Hayom reported in June, Netanyahu told Putin that it would do serious harm to Israel and destabilize the region. The Russian president agreed with the Israeli prime minister and vowed to veto the resolution if it came to a vote.
Obama was clearly counting on Putin to back the resolution. When he understood the domestic political consequences of pushing an initiative so damaging to Israel that it alarmed Russia—the historical patron of the Arab rejectionist bloc—he backed off.
In a Dec. 29 phone call, Kislyak told Flynn that Moscow had already notified the outgoing administration they were not going to support Obama’s parting shot at Jerusalem. Still, it must have irked Obama to hear the two of them discuss his failure—and his ham-fisted efforts to undermine U.S.-Russia relations.
Earlier that day, Obama had expelled dozens of Russian diplomats for interfering in the 2016 election. Had Obama really wanted to hold Moscow responsible for targeting a major American political institution, the response would have been much more severe. Both Flynn and Kislyak understood that the expulsions were just another chapter in the Russiagate narrative, scripted to delegitimize Trump’s election. Flynn told Kislyak that the Russians shouldn’t let the outgoing administration “box us in.” Kislyak concurred that this was why Obama had expelled Russian diplomats. “Transparently,” he told Flynn, “openly.”
We know Obama listened in on Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak because Rice documented it, as did the FBI.
A few days after the Dec. 29 call, Obama met at the White House with administration principals, including Biden, and FBI Director James Comey to discuss it. Contemporaneous notes of the meeting taken by FBI agent Peter Strzok were declassified in June. Regarding Flynn’s conversations with the Russian official, Biden mentioned the Logan Act, an obscure and likely unconstitutional 18th-century statute criminalizing unauthorized communications with foreign powers.
“These are unusual times,” said Obama. “Make sure you look at things,” he told Comey, “and have the right people on it.” That is, the president told the FBI director to investigate his successor’s senior foreign policy adviser.
Comey seems to have differed with Obama, though. He said that Flynn’s phone calls with the Russian ambassador “appear legit.” That, anyway, is the FBI’s version of events.
In the White House version, Obama and Biden are cautious overseers of the law enforcement and intelligence bureaucracies. And Comey appears to be on the verge of doing something reckless. The author of this account is Susan Rice, who set it down in a Jan. 20, 2017, email that she sent to herself in her last hours at the White House as Trump was about to be inaugurated. Much of Rice’s last-minute-email memorializing of the White House meeting that had taken place weeks earlier had already been unredacted. It shows that, according to Rice, Obama advised Comey to do everything “by the book.”
In May, Grenell declassified the rest of the email—a passage dealing with Flynn. In contrast to the FBI’s version, Rice’s email shows that it is Comey who was suspicious of Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak. The FBI director had “some concerns” that the incoming national security adviser was “speaking frequently” with the Russian envoy. According to Rice, Comey said that “the level of communication is unusual.”
It’s not hard to imagine why the Comey and Rice accounts would differ so dramatically. Comey and the FBI assert that the decision to go after Flynn was made by the president and vice president. Rice’s version shows not only that it was Comey who had it out for Flynn, but that Obama did not trust the FBI chief. One of her last acts in the White House was to double back to the earlier meeting to establish that no matter what Comey might do or say at a later date, she and Biden had witnessed Obama telling him to “go by the book” regarding Flynn’s case.
So whose version is right? There are problems with both. If the FBI is to be believed, why did Comey continue to target Flynn even after Obama left the White House? As for Rice’s account, why did she wait until her last hours in office to document Obama’s righteous admonition?
The bigger problem now is that the documents declassified in the last few months show conclusively that the investigation of Flynn was fraudulent. Rice’s own testimony proves that, despite the many years that she and other former Obama officials have gone on TV to call the American president Putin’s lapdog, there was never any evidence of Russian collusion. Her testimony and other documents show that dozens of Obama officials, including Biden, were spying on Flynn—for manifestly political purposes.
Since evidence of the bureau’s illegal surveillance of Trump and his associates began to surface in the winter of 2016, Trump allies and journalists on the right, including me, have attributed stewardship of the operation to the unelected bureaucrats who staff the Beltway’s permanent bureaucracy. But the documents released over the last several months challenge that reading with mounting evidence that the spying operation was controlled not by the “Deep State” but rather by men and women holding and vying for the highest offices in the land. Barack Obama directed a program of political surveillance, with the full knowledge and participation of his vice president. Susan Rice knows the truth, which is why she’s on Joe Biden’s very short list of vice presidential candidates.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).