A former Obama administration official responsible for the Defense Department's Russia policy has come in the White House's crosshairs for what they have characterized as her admission that Obama-era officials were collecting intelligence on President Donald Trump and his transition team.
In a March 2 appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense, was asked to respond to a New York Times report claiming the Obama administration had scrambled to preserve intelligence related to Trump's possible ties to Russia in the waning days of Barack Obama's presidency.
"American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump," the Times reported. "Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates."
Farkas told "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski that it would not surprise her if that were the case. She said she had been "urging" her former colleagues "to get as much information as you can, get as much intelligence as you can, before President Obama leaves the administration."
"I had a fear that the Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about ... the Trump staff’s dealing with Russians, that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence," Farkas said.
She added that the fear Trump might try to bury the relevant intelligence may have been why sources felt the need to publicize the FBI's investigation into Trump's Russia ties by leaking aspects of it to the press.
This week, her comments have resurfaced as the White House has been swept up in a controversy involving whether it improperly gave House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes access to classified intelligence reports. Fox News host Sean Hannity appears to have first floated the idea that Farkas was "admitting" that Trump's transition team members had been under surveillance by Obama, something Nunes said last week had been revealed by the intelligence he viewed.
"She’s admitting that they [Obama officials] unmasked them because they’re Trump transition members," Hannity said on Wednesday.
By Friday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer invoked Farkas' comments. He said Farkas had essentially acknowledged that the Obama administration was "engaged in an effort to spread information about Trump officials that had come up in intelligence."
"I think more and more the substance that continues to come out on the record by individuals continues to point to exactly what the president was talking about that day," Spicer said. “The question is why? Who else did it? Was it ordered? By whom?”
However, as Nunes has acknowledged, such intelligence collection — if it was picked up during the intelligence community's routine surveillance of foreign agents on US soil — would have been legal. And Farkas left the Obama administration in October 2015, when Trump was only months into his presidential candidacy.
The dominoes did not begin to fall on Trump's and his associates' ties with Russian officials until mid-2016. That was when a mysterious change in the GOP's platform on Ukraine, WikiLeaks' release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails, and conversations between top Trump surrogates Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn with Russia's ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, began to raise questions.
By that point, Farkas had already been out of government for nine months and likely wouldn't have had any insight into what intelligence the administration actually had about Trump's ties to Russia, or what they were doing with it.
The White House has tried repeatedly with varying degrees of evidence to attempt to validate Trump's explosive claim earlier this month that Obama "tapped" his phones at Trump Tower during the election — a claim both Spicer and Trump have been steadily walking back for nearly a month.
"Don't forget, when I say wiretapping, those words were in quotes," Trump told Fox's Tucker Carlson on March 16.
"That really covers — because wiretapping is pretty old-fashioned stuff, but that really covers surveillance and many other things. And nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes, but that's a very important thing. But wiretap covers a lot of different things. I think you're going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks."
About a week later Nunes told reporters that he had obtained documents related to possible surveillance of Trump's associates during the transition.
Asked about those documents later, Spicer scolded reports for being obsessed with the "process" over the "substance" of Nunes' findings, which he claimed Nunes had obtained legally — and, it was revealed later, with the help of the White House.
More From Business Insider