I’ve already explained, in a post over at Just Security, some of the law and background surrounding what we know about Donald Trump’s incendiary claim that his predecessor wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, and I’d suggest reading that if you want to delve into some of the wonky details, but I thought it might be worth a separate point to pull out some of the critical points and remark on how the story has evolved since Saturday.
- There’s no basis on the public record to support the allegation that phones at Trump Tower were wiretapped, or that the Trump campaign was targeted for electronic surveillance, let alone on the orders of Barack Obama. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has publicly denied it, and FBI Director James Comey has reportedly been pressing for a disavowal from the Justice Department. This appears to be something Trump concocted on the basis of (deep breath now) his own misreading of a misleading Breitbart News article based on a talk radio host’s summary of months-old reports in the British press. Those news stories—which conspicuously haven’t been reported out by the deeply-sourced intelligence journalists at U.S. outlets, and so should be taken with a grain of salt—concern some sort of order, purportedly sought by the FBI from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, targeting Russian banks in order to follow up intelligence leads concerning possible transfers of funds from Russia to Trump aides. If the reports are true, that’s vastly different from what Trump alleged, and not obviously improper on its face, though when intelligence surveillance intersects domestic politics, even indirectly, there’s always an elevated risk of abuse.
- The White House has been dodging and weaving a bit in its public statements following Trump’s allegations on Twitter. Initially, aides told multiple reporters that they thought the president had been reacting to the Breitbart piece, which was circulated internally on Friday. But, as I explain in more detail in my Just Security post, the sources drawn on for the Breitbart piece don’t actually support Trump’s claims. More recently, spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway insinuated that Trump may have some other classified basis for his accusations. She’s called on the FBI to release more information, while other White House officials have suggested it should fall to Congress to investigate. This is all, to put it mildly, grossly irresponsible. If the president has classified information about improper surveillance of his campaign, he is empowered to declassify it. If he’s not sure whether to believe what he reads on the Internet, the head of the executive branch is not limited to relying on Breitbart News to learn about the activities of his own intelligence community. But it should be wholly unacceptable for Trump to level serious accusations of criminal abuse of intelligence authorities by his predecessor, then punt to Congress when pressed to produce evidence.