This past weekend witnessed yet another major Trump controversy, this one triggered by a string of presidential tweets published on Saturday morning. The president accused his predecessor of "tapp[ing]" his phones during the election cycle, labeling the Obama administration's alleged actions "McCarthyism," and likening the situation to Watergate. This explosive allegation was met with a cascade of denials (and expressions of confusion) from current and former political and intelligence officials, both named and unnamed:
A senior US official tells @NBCNightlyNews' Pete Williams that he and others in a position to know have no idea what Trump is talking about.— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) March 4, 2017
EXCLUSIVE: CLAPPER - " there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, president-elect, candidate or campaign" #MTP— NBC News PR (@NBCNewsPR) March 5, 2017
The trouble with that last statement is that it comes from an ex-Obama official who lacks credibility for a number of reasons -- not the least of which is that he blatantly lied to Congress about the collection of average Americans' metadata (under Democratic questioning, I should add). Similar trust issues can be raised in response to a vehement denial from Ben Rhodes, whose White House legacy involves manipulating and misleading the public on major national security issues. Nevertheless, Trump publicly leveled a very serious and specific accusation against Obama, making no effort at providing proof that his phones were tapped. Indeed, within hours of the president's tweets, it appeared as though his team had begun searching for evidence that might back up their boss' claim, which would suggest that they didn't possess said proof when Trump blasted out those messages to millions of people. (It also raises questions about White House interference in a possible ongoing FBI investigation). Here's former NSA official John Schindler making a point about what Trump could do if he had the goods on Obama, followed by the White House's actual course of action:
POTUS can declassify & release any intel he wants. If Trump has proof of this shocking allegation, show the public.https://t.co/Arvkahst1N— John Schindler (@20committee) March 4, 2017
Trump levels wildly explosive allegations without offering any evidence—now the White House says it won't comment further. That's untenable. pic.twitter.com/dKRKnLZa6X— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 5, 2017
FBI Director James Comey is apparently unhappy over Trump's statements, reportedly telling associates that the president's claims are baseless, and urging the Justice Department to publicly refute them. It's important to note that Trump didn't conjure this overall issue out of nowhere. Dating back months, there have been media accounts floating around that the Obama Justice Department did seek FISA warrants to monitor the communications of some members of Trump's team, in connection with an investigation into alleged Russia ties -- particularly surrounding a Trump Tower server suspected of virtual communications with Russian banks, a story that seems to have gone nowhere. An initial FISA warrant was reportedly denied by the court as unsupportable or overbroad -- a rarity -- but a more narrowly-tailored follow-up attempt months later (that did not target Trump himself) was supposedly granted. Again, these details have been reported, but not confirmed. If true, this would suggest that there was, and perhaps still is, some form of wiretap probe into some members of Trump's orbit. We do not know what the nature of that investigation is, however, nor would its existence validate Trump's explicit assertion that Obama had tapped his phones. Senator Ben Sasse, a conservative from Nebraska, issued a thoughtful statement in response to the contretemps:
The deep undermining of the public's trust in vital US institutions is precisely what our adversaries want. This deterioration is hastened by bad, discredited, agenda-driven reporting from the media, conspiracy-mongering, as well as serial dishonesty from elected partisans. And yes, sloppy, unsupported, drive-by 'bombshells' dropped by the President of the United States would also contribute to the problem. If Trump has evidence that he was illegally wiretapped, he should produce it immediately. Based on the White House statement above, it doesn't look like any such proof is forthcoming. Instead, he's punted his claims over to Congressional investigators, and announced that he won't comment further until they've looked into it. Unless new details come to light, this response strongly suggests that Trump saw a report about the alleged wiretapping efforts (perhaps this timeline published by Breitbart on Friday), became agitated, and fired off some slapdash tweets without thinking through the implications or familiarizing himself with the relevant details or context.
my statement on wiretapping... pic.twitter.com/OzYkOCXeEh— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) March 4, 2017
"But he believes it, and might be proven right" is not an acceptable defense here. We could debate whether it would have been wise for him to simply ask provocative questions pertaining to these reports, but he went a big step further and issued declarative statements of egregious wrongdoing, seemingly without hard evidence. That is not responsible presidential conduct. As others have pointed out, the only way Trump comes out of this without denting his own credibility is if specific evidence emerges that the Obama administration unlawfully wiretapped Trump's phones. If there was no such wiretap, Trump looks reckless. And if there was some form of wiretap against certain figures in Trump's camp, a FISA warrant application must exist somewhere, the contents of much may not be flattering to Trumpworld.
I'll leave you with two must-read pieces by former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy, who delves into the context and breadcrumbs on the supposed FISA warrants. McCarthy concludes that even if the alleged investigation was less dramatic or sinister than Trump's tweets indicate, Obama's DOJ may have severely overstepped its bounds. His second column about Obama officials' parsed denials was published before Clapper made the more categorical statement quoted above, but it's still worth a close read. In sum, I am by no means automatically inclined to take Obama loyalists' word at face value, nor do I put it past his administration to abuse its power for political purposes -- especially with memories of the IRS targeting outrage and the James Rosen affair fresh in my mind. But given his propensity to repeat unsubstantiated nonsense that fits his personal narrative, I'm similarly disinclined to reflexively take President Trump at his word. His charges against Obama are extraordinary. Let him validate them with proof, or risk further exacerbating his reputation as an unreliable deliverer of truth.