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, essentially rewriting 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.
Trump and his Republican allies are pushing 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.
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 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. US officials must make a specific request if they want to know the person's identity, or "unmask" them.
"He was one of the unmaskers," Trump said of Biden in an interview with Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo, labeling the Russia investigation as the greatest political crime in the history of our country.
Trump moved further to lay the blame on his predecessor and would-be replacement. "The president knew everything," Trump said. "President Obama and Vice President Biden, they knew everything."
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-US ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those talks with Kislyak.