Did Obama Tap Trump’s Phones?

On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted that he had “[j]ust found out” that Obama had his “wires tapped” in Trump Tower before the election.  For a sitting president to accuse a previous president of such criminal scandalous behaviour is unprecedented.  If true, it would probably actually be the biggest presidential scandal since Nixon.  But, if false, the gravity of the allegation makes the claim scandalous in and of itself.

It’s not entirely clear where Trump’s information comes from – while we might typically expect that such an announcement would come after a top level intelligence briefing, it appears more likely in this case that his information came from a Breitbart piece published Friday evening, reporting on a radio show by Mark Levin, and claiming (among other things) that “the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign” – claiming that the Obama administration had made multiple FISA applications, and that it was politically-motivated wiretaps that have driven the ongoing series of Russia scandals plaguing the Trump administration.

We have known for months, with a reasonable degree of reliability, that various law enforcement and intelligence agencies were investigating the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government during the campaign.  To be clear, what Breitbart, Levin, and Trump are alleging is something more, that Obama was using the pretext of an investigation to surveil Trump’s people for political ends.  This is a cardinal distinction in this issue:  In the absence of direction or interference from the political levels of the Obama administration, this entire ‘controversy’ is a non-story.

To the extent that the mainstream media has picked up this story, their conclusion is that Trump’s tweet is a claim unsupported by evidence.  Breitbart published an indignant follow-up:

President Donald Trump originally tweeted about the alleged surveillance — which radio host Mark Levin called a “silent coup” by Obama staffers keen to undermine the new administration — on Saturday. Levin’s claims, reported at Breitbart News early Friday, were in turn based on information largely from mainstream outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Heat Street was one non-mainstream source, but the BBC also reported similar information in January. So, too, did the UK Guardian, which is a mainstream source (albeit with a decidedly left-wing slant, hardly favorable to Trump).

Strictly speaking, this passage is all true.  But highly misleading.  In the original reporting, the Washington Post was sourced only as reporting on Jeff Sessions’ meetings with the Russian Ambassador.  To later use (for example) the Washington Post’s presence in the notional bibliography to support the core controversial facts of the reporting is entirely disingenuous.

Indeed, none of the sources linked by Breitbart’s original article – not even Heat Street – actually suggest, imply, or claim that there was any political interference from the Obama administration in the investigations into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.  Where Heat Street states that “the FBI” sought and obtained warrants; Breitbart links that story as supporting a contention that “the Obama administration” sought and obtained the warrants.  Remember what I said above about the ‘cardinal distinction’ here:  Assuming it’s true that “the FBI” conducted surveillance activities, that alone wouldn’t be controversial; but going from there to Trump’s assertion that “Obama” tapped his phones…requires something further.

While the ‘administration’ might ultimately be responsible for the actions of the FBI in a Truman-esque ‘the buck stops here’ kind of sense, ascribing actions of the FBI to the ‘Obama administration’ simply on that basis is a fairly loose use of the term, and when the term is being used to imply or allege improper political interference in a matter that would otherwise be proper law enforcement activities, Breitbart’s phrasing becomes entirely disingenuous and misleading.  (Trump’s further extrapolation, alleging that Obama personally did it, is an impossible conclusion to support based on the Breitbart reporting and its own sources, and yet Breitbart claims that Trump’s tweet is well supported on the evidence.)

A spokesperson for Obama issued a denial of the claim:

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. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.

Breitbart’s follow-up calls this a “non-denial denial”, parsing it in a pseudolegalistic fashion to try to show ways that Obama might have acted badly without the denial even being strictly false:  For example, that Obama might have directly ordered surveillance on foreigners in communication with the Trump campaign, as a roundabout way of surveilling the Trump campaign.  (This, of course, would have been a particularly limited sort of surveillance on the Trump campaign.  If we’re listening in on the Russian Ambassador’s conversations, then we’ll only get information on the Trump campaign’s communications with the Russian Ambassador.  Given the strained relationship between the US and Russia, and the evidence that existed at the time that Russia was engaged in espionage activities against at least one major political candidate, it’s pretty strained to try to characterize surveillance warrants against Russians as a nefarious political plot.  There is absolutely a legitimate public interest in having an investigation into the connections between a political candidate and a foreign power that is believed to be sabotaging his political enemies.)

But one should look closely at the wording of the denial.  Firstly, bear in mind that, if there was surveillance conducted on the Trump campaign (and there may have been), it could only have been conducted by branches of the Department of Justice.  So saying that the White House didn’t interfere with DOJ investigations is a meaningful and substantive denial – not a denial that there was surveillance, not a denial that there was an investigation, but a denial of any White House role in it.  (Again, the cardinal distinction in play.)

More recently, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a denial of any surveillance warrant for Trump Tower, as Trump had alleged, and it was likewise reported that FBI Director James Comey has asked the Justice Department to refute Trump’s wiretapping claim because it is false.

The Verdict

Ultimately, we don’t yet know the scope or nature of the investigations into the Trump campaign or its connections with Russia.  There is a sound basis to believe that such investigations are and were occurring, and a sound basis to believe that it was and remains appropriate for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct such investigations.

But as to the contention of impropriety by President Obama in relation to these investigations, these appear to be totally unsupported by any evidence.  When Trump claims that “Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower”, that assertion appears to be one without any basis in fact or evidence, and in fact appears to be the result of a long game of telephone, where stories about the “FBI”‘s investigative activities gradually morph into stories about Obama conducting political espionage.

Update, March 16, 2017:

Yesterday, Trump was interviewed by Tucker Carlson, and was asked about where he ‘found out’ about the ‘wiretapping’.

I read in, I think it was January 20, a New York Times article where they were talking about wiretapping. There was an article, I think they used that exact term. I read other things. I watched your friend Brett Baier the day previous where he was talking about certain very complex sets of things happening, and wiretapping. I said, wait a minute, there’s a lot of wiretapping being talked about.

There indeed was a January 20 article from the New York Times, and – as Trump made a great deal out of in the interview – it did in fact use the word ‘wiretapping’.  However, it never alleged or implied any impropriety or political interference on the part of the Obama administration, and in fact the article stated quite expressly, “It is not clear whether the communications had anything to do with Donald J. Trump or his campaign.”

The Brett Baier citation appears to allude to an interview of Paul Ryan, where Baier asked Ryan about the possibility of the Obama administration having surveilled the Trump campaign, to which Ryan’s response was “I don’t think that’s the case.

Is the fact that Trump’s tweet came just after the publication of the Breitbart article a coincidence?  Or is he merely trying to cite the NYT article (which makes little sense as support for a “just found out” claim), instead of the Breitbart article that actually suggested impropriety, for optical reasons?  Either way, what the Carlson interview confirms is that, as was widely surmised, and despite Kellyanne Conway defending the tweet on Fox and Friends by stating that Trump “has information and intelligence that the rest of us do not”, Trump’s allegations in fact did not come from briefings from intelligence sources or the Justice Department.  (I highlight Conway playing the ‘Trump has inside information’ card, because it’s a dangerous card to play, particularly when it turns out not to be true of the matter in issue:  It undermines the credibility of the person and the office when Trump’s administration is suggesting that we should take him at face value because he’s ‘in the know’, and it turns out that he’s basing his allegations entirely on a newspaper article.)

The other important update today is that the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was investigating the claim, issued a joint statement dismissing the claim:

Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.

All in all, the updates are a pretty sound basis on which to ground an unqualified dismissal of Trump’s claim.  While you can’t prove a negative, the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee found no evidence and that Trump himself could provide no evidence, basing his belief on a New York Times article that actually doesn’t say what he cites it for, the ultimate conclusion is that there was never any basis for Trump’s allegations against Obama.  (That said, Sean Spicer indicated today that Trump stands by the claims, nonetheless.)

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