President Donald Trump’s latest attempt to further his tenuous conspiracy known as “Obamagate” has introduced a new term into the popular lexicon – political "unmasking." Numerous high-ranking Obama administration members, including presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, have been listed among those who requested former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's name to be revealed in documents related to the Russia investigation. The current case around Flynn — and Trump's implications of Biden's involvement — are now shrouded in questions regarding these political processes.
Since the phrase has been tossed around at an increasing rate, many are left to wonder, what exactly is unmasking? In short, it is the action of identifying a person anonymously referred to in an intelligence document. Up until recently, this routine practice took place hundreds of times each year without so much as a hiccup of controversy. What is happening now would be more aptly described as “tactical unmasking” as it uses the otherwise routine practice for political gain.
It started with the unmasking of Flynn in intelligence reports from the presidential transition between Barack Obama and Trump. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador between the election and Trump’s inauguration, has been a central figure in the tangled Trump-Russia collusion scandal since 2017.
He later resigned and was facing criminal charges until earlier this month when the Justice Department dismissed those charges. This complete exoneration has led some to believe that Attorney General William Barr was orchestrating favours for Trump who previously mentioned giving Flynn a presidential pardon.
On May 13, Richard Grenell, director of national intelligence and ally of Trump, declassified and sent Republican senators a list of high-ranking Obama administration members he accused of being involved in Flynn’s unmasking. “I am providing a revised list of identities of any officials who submitted requests to the National Security Agency at any point between 8 November 2016 and 31 January 2017 to unmask the identify of former National Security Adviser, Lieutenant General Michael T Flynn,” reads a memo from National Security Agency director Gen. Paul Nakasone, which was released by Grenell. While numerous names were on this list, dated January 12, 2017 — including everyone from former FBI director James Comey to former CIA director John Brennan — the name that raised eyebrows was Biden.
The Trump campaign was quick to comment on the list. “We already knew Biden was briefed on the Flynn case before President Trump took office and now we know that he wanted Flynn unmasked,” Trump campaign manager, Brad Parscale told The Guardian. “Americans have the right to know the depth of Biden’s involvement in the set-up of Gen. Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax.”
In a statement, Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said, “Donald Trump’s attempt at dishonest media manipulation to distract from his response to the worst public health crisis in 100 years has backfired.” This instance of unmasking goes to show the lengths to which Trump will go in an attempt to deepen fears and damage reputations in what some believe to be a distraction from how Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic.
Since May 10, Trump has been unleashing a barrage of tweets and retweets in an attempt to support what he calls “Obamagate.” However, many see this attempt to cast Flynn as “framed” to be a distraction from consistent issues going on at the White House.
Unmasking is just the latest is a series of tactics employed by Trump and his allies in the past few days to push Obamagate as “the biggest political crime in American history.” In reality, ex-justice department spokesman Matthew Miller tells The Guardian that the Trump administration would “rather talk about unmasking than masks.”