On Saturday morning, President Trump found his cellphone and immediately determined to bring to light a national controversy: the Obama administration wiretapping of Trump Tower. At least, that’s what he tweeted about:
Within the next couple of hours, he tweeted out another devastating accusation:
This tweetstorm raises a few questions: first, did the Obama administration have Trump’s wires tapped in Trump Tower? Second, did President Obama himself have Donald Trump’s wires tapped in Trump Tower? Third, does Trump know what the hell he’s talking about? Fourth, if not, does it matter? Finally, how will this little conflagration play out politically?
Here are some answers.
1. The Obama Administration Did Monitor Communications Of People/Sources Surrounding Trump. The New York Times reported months ago that the intelligence community had recordings of several of Trump’s associates; the Times speculated that such recordings could have been gathered because the Obama intelligence apparatus was wiretapping Russians and caught Trump officials on the other end. As Andrew McCarthy writes at National Review:
To summarize, reporting indicates that, prior to June 2016, the Obama Justice Department and FBI considered a criminal investigation of Trump associates, and perhaps Trump himself, based on concerns about connections to Russian financial institutions. Preliminary poking around indicated that there was nothing criminal involved. Rather than shut the case down, though, the Obama Justice Department converted it into a national-security investigation under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA allows the government, if it gets court permission, to conduct electronic surveillance (which could include wiretapping, monitoring of e-mail, and the like) against those it alleges are “agents of a foreign power.” FISA applications and the evidence garnered from them are classified – i.e., we would not know about any of this unless someone had leaked classified information to the media, a felony.
According to multiple reports, during the 2016 campaign, the Obama administration allegedly submitted two requests with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) targeting Trump or those associated with him. The first, submitted in June 2016, was reportedly a request to monitor several of Trump's associates. The request was denied. The Obama administration then allegedly submitted a second FISA request in October focused on the computer server in Trump Tower, which they suspected had some connections to Russian banks. That request was granted, but nothing was found. According to some reports, the wiretaps of Trump Tower continued nonetheless.
Here was Heat Street’s reporting on the issue:
Two separate sources with links to the counter-intelligence community have confirmed to Heat Street that the FBI sought, and was granted, a FISA court warrant in October, giving counter-intelligence permission to examine the activities of ‘U.S. persons’ in Donald Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia. Contrary to earlier reporting in the New York Times, which cited FBI sources as saying that the agency did not believe that the private server in Donald Trump’s Trump Tower which was connected to a Russian bank had any nefarious purpose, the FBI’s counter-intelligence arm, sources say, re-drew an earlier FISA court request around possible financial and banking offenses related to the server. The first request, which, sources say, named Trump, was denied back in June, but the second was drawn more narrowly and was granted in October after evidence was presented of a server, possibly related to the Trump campaign, and its alleged links to two banks; SVB Bank and Russia’s Alfa Bank.
So to pretend the Obama administration did nothing at all questionable here is bizarre.
We also don’t know that the Obama administration had Trump’s wires tapped. In fact, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared on the morning shows on Sunday and stated that no FISA court order was issued to tap Trump or his campaign. But as we've seen, the issue is a bit more complex than that.
2. There’s No Evidence Obama Himself Had Trump’s Wires Tapped. But It’s Not Impossible. Figures in the Obama administration immediately denied there were any direct orders to the DOJ to pursue a Trump wiretap. “A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” said Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis. “As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.” This is plausible. McCarthy points out that FISA courts are responsible for ordering surveillance. And McCarthy also states, "it is specious to claim that, if the White House asks to see FISA court applications and orders, this would be a form of political interference in the law-enforcement mission of the FBI and Justice Department."
Beyond that, there’s no reason to believe that Obama himself would order the DOJ to do or not do anything – there’s a reason the DOJ has become the repository for political hacks who know where their bread is buttered over the past two decades. The Obama White House invoked executive privilege in 2012 in order to avoid making emails involving Attorney General Eric Holder available to Congress, in the middle of a contempt vote. It’s likely true that the Obama White House didn’t order the DOJ to pursue wiretaps against Trump personally. But the high dudgeon from the Obama White House here is way overblown. Presidents rarely have to ask their appointees to do their bidding.
3. Trump Hasn’t Presented Any New Evidence. Trump hasn’t presented any evidence for his claims. White House press secretary Sean Spicer essentially tweeted that Trump was shooting from the hip: “President Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016. Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted.” In other words, Trump made an unsupported accusation and wants Congress to pursue it for him. There’s no risk to Trump in doing this – it means that if Congress refuses to investigate, he can call them weaklings; if they investigate and find anything, he’ll claim proof; if they investigate and find nothing, he’ll rail against them and call them weaklings.
4. Yes, It Matters That Trump Tweets His Theories Without Evidence. But This Problem Doesn't Start With Trump. This will raise serious questions about the behavior of the Obama administration in the run-up to the election. It will also raise questions about whether the Obama administration’s FISA requests were legitimate or political hits. If they were legitimate, then Trump actually has some troubles here – it’s possible that all the Trump-Russia smoke has some fire to it. If not, then Obama’s administration could have been engaging in seriously undemocratic behavior, far surpassing Watergate. Either way, Trump’s tweets do nothing to quell the chaos surrounding the presidency or ease concerns about the honesty of the federal government. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) hits the nail on the head:
The President today made some very serious allegations, and the informed citizens that a republic requires deserve more information. If there were wiretaps of then-candidate Trump’s organization or campaign, then it was either with FISA Court authorization or without such authorization. If without, the President should explain what sort of wiretap it was and how he knows this. It is possible that he was illegally tapped. On the other hand, if it was with a legal FISA Court order, then an application for surveillance exists that the Court found credible. The President should ask that this full application regarding surveillance of foreign operatives or operations be made available, ideally to the full public, and at a bare minimum to the US Senate. We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the President’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots. A quest for the full truth, rather than knee-jerk partisanship, must be our guide if we are going to rebuild civic trust and health.
The media are pretending now that Trump's tweet undermines confidence in government. But if confidence in government hadn't already been compromised, Trump wouldn't be president. And as we've seen, the Obama administration's weaponization of the bureaucracy means that Americans are suspicious that all means are in play for politically motivated actors.
5. Trump’s Supporters Will Point To Obama’s Malfeasance, Obama’s Supporters Will Point To Trump’s Twitter Diarrhea, Both Will Be Right. So, how will this shake out? Trump’s supporters will accuse the media of fibbing for claiming that the Obama administration never did anything to the Trump team during the campaign – and they’ll be right. There are multiple media reports that the Obama administration asked for FISA wiretaps and got at least one of them; we don’t know the extent of those wiretaps or what they found. We also don’t know who in the Obama administration requested such FISA wiretaps or why. Meanwhile, Obama’s supporters will accuse Trump of making things up based on shoddy evidence – and they’ll be right too, in all likelihood, since even Trump’s team is running from providing evidence of his accusations. Here, for example, is CNN's Jake Tapper:
And so the two sides will slap each other, accusing each other (rightly) of ignoring the larger issues at play. Just another day in 2017.