What Did Obama Know — and When Did He Know It?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
What did President Obama know and when did he know it? That famous formulation is emerging as the question in the wake of new disclosures in respect of a meeting that took place inside the Oval Office in the closing days of Mr. Obama’s presidency. The meeting included not only his national security adviser, Susan Rice, and the head of the FBI, James Comey, but also Vice President Biden, now the prospective Democratic nominee.
This is laid out in, among other places, a dispatch by Mollie Hemingway in the Federalist. Ms. Hemingway reckons the meeting is turning out to be, as her headline puts it, “key” to the “entire anti-Trump operation” launched two weeks before the end of the Obama administration. She’s not the only one laying this out; a veteran of the Sun, Eli Lake, now of Bloomberg, has been all over the story; the Wall Street Journal, as well.
Ms. Hemingway presents a terrific timeline. It starts on January 4, 2017, at a time when the FBI was scrambling, as the Federalist’s scribe puts it, to reopen a case against General Flynn. The January 5 meeting started as a briefing for the President and also included Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, the CIA director, John Brennan, and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.
After the briefing, Ms. Hemingway reports, the intelligence chiefs were dismissed. Ms. Yates and Mr. Comey “were asked to stay.” Writes Mrs. Hemingway: “Not only did Obama give his guidance about how to perpetuate the Russia collusion theory investigations, he also talked about Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to both Comey and Yates.”
“Interestingly,” writes Ms. Hemingway, Messrs. Clapper and Comey and Ms. Yates “all said that they did not brief Obama about these phone calls.” She reckons Ms. Rice “likely” did. At the meeting, Ms. Hemingway notes, Mr. Comey “mentions the Logan Act.” Fifteen days later, Ms. Rice would send herself what Ms. Hemingway calls a “bizarre” email claiming that Mr. Obama wanted everything to be done “by the book.”
In the ensuing weeks, a series of leaks rocked the incoming Trump administration. Grizzled newspapermen shook their heads in amazement at such a cataract of leaks against a new administration. By February 13, writes Ms. Hemingway, “the operation finally succeeded in getting Flynn fired and rendering him unable to review the operations against the Trump campaign, Trump transition team, and Trump administration.”
It’s not our intention here to suggest that Mr. Obama, or anyone else at his meeting, broke the law. That may turn out to be the case, but it is not our point here. It’s enough for us — it’s just gobsmacking — that a sitting president of America hosted in his office a meeting that appears designed to undermine the man who will, two weeks hence, succeed him in the highest office in the land.
All the more so when, as seems to be the case, the outgoing vice president is present at the meeting and when the news breaks in the midst of an election year in which the erstwhile vice president is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination for president. What kind of Shakespeare or Dante could come up with such a fantastic plot? It’s hard to think of anyone other than the Muse of History.
“What did the president know and when did he know it?” is the phrase that history offers up. It was first uttered during Senator Sam Ervin’s Watergate hearings by Senator Howard Baker, Republican of Tennessee. It starts to look ever more apt as investigators, put on the case by Attorney General Barr, finally start to focus on who it was who laid the long train of powder against the incoming Trump administration.
Drawing by Ellioitt Banfield, courtesy of the artist.