Trump Follows Up Bizarre Wiretap Allegations By Demanding Investigation - But of What?
President Donald Trump came under heavy fire from the entire media and political establishment over the weekend, after making unsupported allegations in a series of Saturday morning tweets that former President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretapping operation at Trump Tower prior to the November election.
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump) 1488628968
On Sunday, Trump refused to back down from these wild charges, which were apparently inspired (like so many of the president’s social media outbursts) by a story on Breitbart News, this one alleging that Obama had tried to stage a “silent coup” against the Trump campaign and perhaps the current Trump administration as well.
Virtually no one in the media or either political party has come forward to support Trump’s allegations, with Democrats assailing the charges as ludicrous and most Republicans remaining silent. But on Sunday morning the White House demanded a congressional investigation into whether Obama had abused “executive branch investigative powers” during the 2016 campaign.
In a possible signal that some in the White House understood that Trump had isolated himself with these charges, the official statement concluded: “Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted.”
A day earlier, Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis denied that Obama had ordered any such surveillance of Trump Tower, calling Trump’s charges “simply false.” Neither Obama “nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen,” Lewis said in a statement.
An even more forceful and specific denial came from James Clapper, director of national intelligence under Obama. In a Sunday morning appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Clapper said, “There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, as a candidate or against his campaign.” Clapper “absolutely” would have known of any possible surveillance warrant against Trump or his campaign, he insisted.
Trump’s critics fastened on the fact that the president appeared not to understand that no chief executive can unilaterally order a surveillance operation against an American citizen. Any such request would have to go through a federal judge, who can issue a surveillance warrant if he or she finds probable cause that the subject of the investigation has committed a federal crime or is a foreign agent.
Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, tweeted at Trump on Saturday, “Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”
Speaking to Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Nation” on Sunday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described the president’s charges as “ridiculous” and suggested Trump was seeking to deflect attention from the widening probe into his campaign’s contacts with Russia. Trump was resorting to “authoritarian” tools and methods, Pelosi said.
As Alan Yuhas of the Guardian noted in a useful explainer piece on Saturday, the Breitbart story that apparently enraged Trump has its roots in an intriguing Heat Street article last November by Louise Mensch, a former member of the British Parliament. Mensch reported that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (a secret judicial panel also known as the FISA court) “had granted the FBI a surveillance warrant of ‘US persons’ to investigate possible contacts between Russian banks and Trump’s associates.” Who those “US persons” might be, and whether Trump Tower was the surveillance target, was not made clear.
In an article published later on Saturday, Bradley P. Moss of Politico elaborated on this theme, explaining that if Mensch’s claims are accurate, then officials in the Obama Justice Department or the FBI may have convinced the FISA court that unnamed associates of Trump qualified as “agents of a foreign power” because of their extensive contacts with Russian officials. As Moss observes, none of the major U.S. media outlets, such as the New York Times, Washington Post or CNN, have confirmed or repeated Mensch’s reporting — although the Guardian, the BBC and McClatchy have done so.
So various readings of the facts deep beneath this weekend’s events are possible, including that there was indeed some form of surveillance operation directed against Trump, but that Obama did not order it — and that perhaps the target was not the Trump campaign but the Trump business.
As Yuhas and other commentators have observed, the Obama team’s denial only addressed the former president’s actions, and avoided the underlying question of whether Trump Tower had in fact been under surveillance. Clapper’s denial on “Meet the Press” may have sounded categorical but was phrased in a similarly careful manner. Clapper specified that there had been no wiretap operation against Trump “as a candidate or against his campaign.” He did not say there had been no such operation at all.
Of course, a more economical explanation is also available: It could be that the president of the United States was making bizarre counterfactual assertions based on whatever half-baked conspiracy theories he just read on right-wing media.