In Memoriam: A Tribute To The Stupidest Moments Of The Three-Year Unmasking Saga

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: Devin Nunes (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin - Pool/Getty Images)
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October 16, 2020 2:08 p.m.

Pour one out for Devin Nunes. And Lindsey Graham. And Rand Paul. 

Pour a great big cold one out for Bill Barr, who, after all of his dutiful political investigating, is now going the way of a Jeff Sessions in the President’s eyes as his carefully publicized unmasking probe collapses in a whimper.

Let us have a moment of silence for the hundreds of hours of Fox News programming devoted to blowing open the BOMBSHELL unmasking revelations, the cubic tons of carbon dioxide expelled by Sean Hannity as he tried to impress upon his viewers the wickedness of the Obama administration officials involved.

We are gathered here today to remember our constant, dependable companion of the last three years who, even after losing touch for months at a time, always came back into our lives at the most politically advantageous moments: the completely fake and stupid unmasking conspiracy theory.

Last week, U.S. Attorney John Bash slipped out a back door of the Justice Department, a hint at news the DOJ would not announce: that the probe created by Barr into unmasking allegations against various Obama-era officials had turned up absolutely nothing in the way of criminal charges or wrongdoing, that it had resolved quietly without leaving behind even a public report. 

It was an unceremonious end to what has been a long and excruciatingly dumb journey. 

President Donald Trump, who held the unmasking bologna near and dear even before he took office, is in mourning. “I’m not happy with all of the evidence I have, I can tell you that,” he said to Newsmax. “I’m not happy.”

How could he be? After years of priming the pump for an explosive, pre-reelection scandal that would tarnish his enemies and provide ultimate vindication for a four-year-old paranoia he will never shake, he’s left only with memories of happier times. 

2017

Times such as March of 2017, to be exact. Then, back when the world could still be shocked, Trump shocked it by announcing without a scintilla of evidence that the Obama administration had wiretapped Trump Tower. 

Determined to find an explanation, truly any explanation, to give cover to Trump’s insane tweet, one Devin Nunes (R-CA) reported for duty. The call came when he was in a car with a communications staffer. Devin ‘007’ Nunes ditched the pleb, switched cars and hightailed it to the White House. 

There, Nunes got some ~intel~ from secret sources (White House officials) about members of the Trump transition team that were incidentally collected and unmasked by U.S. intelligence. How do we know this? Because Nunes, like any sane human, took said classified intelligence and held a press conference about it the very next day! 

Nunes and Trump seized upon the information as proof that the Obama administration had preemptively weaponized intelligence resources to undermine Trump’s coming presidency, to give some kind of squint-your-eyes and tilt-your-head credence to the bizarre Trump Tower wiretapping claim.

Further, the unmasking claims were a convenient way for Nunes and Trump to direct attention away from the crux of the situation: that intelligence agencies were collecting this information because of troubling relationships between the Trump campaign and transition team and foreign governments. 

Quick interruption of rationality: a reminder that literally thousands of U.S. citizens are “incidentally collected” every year during U.S. agencies’ surveillance of foreign nationals. Their names are kept secret unless a high-level U.S. officer asks for it to be “unmasked.” It’s not a pernicious practice — rather, it’s a routine one sometimes needed for an official to make sense of the intelligence.  

Back to March 2017. Nunes joyfully presented his scavenged scandal at his boss’ feet — success! Kind of. Trump said he felt “somewhat vindicated” — and held another press conference. 

Nunes was soon facing haters on all fronts. Adam Schiff (D-CA), then ranking member of the House Intel Committee, was pissed that Nunes a) was pretending that this was a big deal and b) hadn’t bothered to tell any Democrats that he was going to pretend it was a big deal. Some Republicans (RINOs!) like Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) poured cold water on Nunes’ efforts, the former calling it an “Inspector Clouseau investigation,” the latter saying the House had lost the “credibility” needed to conduct a Russia probe. Loser and sucker, respectively. 

The pressure became too much, and Nunes recused* himself from the investigation in the face off an ethics probe about the possibility that he had leaked classified documents (*the kind of recusal in which you can still read and be part of every step of the committee’s investigation and later decide to shed the label altogether because you’re the chairman and you can, in Nunes’ words, “do whatever you want.”)

As Washington became absorbed with interest in the unfolding story of Russia’s actual 2016 election interference and Trumpworld’s connections to it, Nunes pulled out a glittery object to distract the rightwing media: subpoenas! As House Intelligence chair, he threw fistfuls at the FBI, CIA and NSA, (party pooper Schiff deemed the subpoenas unnecessary because those agencies were already cooperating with the committee).

No matter: Nunes tried to fill the airwaves with chaos, hopefully blocking out that Senate Intel Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) had gleaned that “the unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes.” Burr had also brought former national security adviser Susan Rice, one of the main characters in Nunes’ unmasking tale, in for questioning, though in a major lapse, didn’t care enough to ask her about Nunes’ pet conspiracy theory.

Worrying Bragging about having been unmasked became as popular among Republican lawmakers as cultivating a folksy twang and “not seeing” Trump’s tweets. By June 2017, Graham was on the bandwagon, claiming that he too had been unmasked. 

Nunes’ efforts ultimately lost steam when Democrats retook the House in 2018 and Nunes’ had to hand the chair of the House Intelligence Committee over to Schiff. But now-ranking member Nunes could rest easy knowing that this administration was full of those of his ilk who’d happily carry on the tradition. 

2020

The inevitable resurrection came this spring, before a background of Trump’s constant OBAMAGATE tweets. (What does that mean, you ask? Come on. “You know what the crime is.”) Then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grennell stepped into Nunes’ big shoes, delivering into the DOJ’s hands (within sight of a coincidentally positioned Fox News camera) a declassified list of Obama officials who had unmasked former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. 

Flynn, as you recall, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations during the transition with then-Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, only to reverse himself later. The Justice Department agreed, dropping the charges. The MAGAverse enshrined Flynn as a great man, who by virtue of his relationship with Trump, incurred the wrath and unjust prosecution of vindictive Obama administration officials and was unmasked.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) promptly requested a copy of the list. While it demonstrated no wrongdoing, and was later found to have no relation to the report on the intercepted Kislyak call that led to Flynn’s prosecution, it contained the name of (gasp!) Joe Biden. It was enough. From the ever-serious Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY): “We sort of have the smoking gun because we now have the declassified document with Joe Biden’s name on it.” Got ‘em.

Barr started up the Bash probe to ascertain if the requests were improper. Months later, as we now know, the probe quietly perished alongside Trump’s hopes and dreams.

Until another Nunes comes along, we must find ways to keep the unmasking conspiracy alive in our hearts. For inspiration, we turn to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who made this pronouncement while interrupting another lawmaker at a hearing with CEOs of big tech companies, and being asked to put on a mask to protect his colleagues from the pandemic:

“If you want to talk about masks, why would the deputy secretary of the secretary of the treasury unmask Michael Flynn’s name, Mr. Raskin?” he shouted, unmaskedly. Too right.

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