On Monday March 20, FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers will testify before the House Intelligence Committee on the investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 election, including President Trump’s claim that he had been “wiretapped.” It promises be an interesting day and one that is not likely to bring much comfort to the beleaguered White House. In advance of the event, some brief history is in order.
On March 4, President Trump started his day off with a snarl—a series of four dawn tweets attacking his predecessor and accusing President Obama of having wire tapped him. And with that grave and explosive charge off his chest, Trump immediately threw in a snarky attack on his successor at The Apprentice, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Such is presidential gravitas in the Age of Trump:
- Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
- Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!
- I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
- How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show
In the ten days following the Trump tweets, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and others in the White House became ensnarled in a tangle of changing responses, first declining to explain, and then attempting to explain, their leader’s tweets. Then, on Wednesday. President Trump himself tried his hand at an explanation, but it was hardly more convincing than those offered by Spicer.
Trump’s host on the Fox News broadcast, Tucker Carlson, noted that in Trump’s 6:35 AM tweet on March 4, Trump said that he had “just found out” that he had his wires tapped in Trump Tower. He asked Trump how he had learned that and Trump replied:
Well, I’ve been reading about things. 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 Bret 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. I’ve been seeing a lot of things.
Carlson then pressed Trump, “ Why not wait to tweet about it until you can prove it? Don’t you devalue your words when you can’t provide evidence?” And Trump responded:
TRUMP: Well, because “The New York Times” wrote about it. Not that I respect “The New York Times”. I call it the failing “New York Times”. But they did write on January 20 using the word wiretap. Other people have come out with —
CARLSON: Right, but you’re the President. You have the ability to gather all the evidence you want.
TRUMP: I do. I do. But I think that frankly we have a lot right now. And I think if you watch — if you watched the Bret Baier and what he was saying and what he was talking about and how he mentioned the word wiretap, you would feel very confident that you could mention the name. He mentioned it. And other people have mentioned it. But if you take a look at some of the things written about wiretapping and eavesdropping —
And don’t forget, when I say wiretapping, those words were in quotes. 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.
Trump’s explanation is, on its face, ludicrous. The fact that the New York Times article and Bret Baier’s broadcast “mentioned” wiretapping provided no basis whatever for the scurrilous personal attack that Trump levied against President Obama. In particular, either source suggested that Trump’s phones had been tapped. Trump sought refuge, as Spicer had previously, by emphasizing that Trump had put wiretapped in quotes, suggesting that he was really referring to some other forms of electronic surveillance. Yet Trump, like Spicer before him, ignored the fact that in two of Trump’s nastiest tweets (numbers 3 and 4 above), he used no quotes and referred explicitly to tapping of his phones. Further, neither the Times nor Baier suggested that any surveillance of Trump associates in any form had been carried out at the direction or suggestion of President Obama. Finally, as numerous observers have pointed out, Trump as President had no need to rely on unconfirmed media reports. He had—and has—the authority as President to determine what if any surveillance warrants had been issued.
The Chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees have already indicated that they know of no evidence that Trump’s phones were tapped, at the direction of President Obama or otherwise. This will no doubt be confirmed by the testimony of Comey and Rogers on Monday. There are, however, loose ends that it would be useful to have resolved and, to the extent possible, done so publicly. Specifically was there any electronic surveillance sought or conducted on any Trump associates such as Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone, whose names have been mentioned in media reports as possible targets of federal investigations. If so, on what grounds was such surveillance requested or initiated?
The Guardian has learned that the FBI applied for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The FISA court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.
Other reports indicated that the focus of the October warrant was communications between a computer operated by a Russian bank, Alfa (or Alpha) Bank and a server used by the Trump organization but not located in Trump Tower. The monitoring of the communications has appeared to reveal unusual and puzzling traffic but apparently nothing substantive thus far. (For a detailed analysis of the computer question, see a November 2 article by Franklin Foer in Slate.) The communications between Alfa Bank and a Trump server may well be a blind alley, but a CNN report of March 10 indicated that the investigation is continuing. And since the subject has become a part of the public conversation, it would be helpful to have it addressed.
Finally, one would like to think that from all of this President Trump might have learned something about the pitfalls of intemperate and reckless tweeting. But I wouldn’t count on it.