In the immediate aftermath of CNN’s bombshell reporting Monday night that the FBI had wiretapped one-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Trump allies – and some people affiliated with the WikiLeaks efforts – argued that the reporting was proof that the President’s much-covered March tweet about being wiretapped had been proven right.
This tweet, from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was typical of that reaction:
Trump: I was “wire tapped”
CNN: Haha. That idiot @realDonaldTrump thinks he was wiretapped.
..Six months later..
CNN: Trump was wiretapped
Here’s the thing: The Manafort wiretapping doesn’t even come close to proving that Trump’s claim was or is right.
Let’s start from the beginning. Early on Saturday, March 4, while at the winter White House at Mar-a-Lago, Trump tweeted this:
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
The tweet has long raised many questions. Had he just had an intelligence briefing on a Saturday before dawn at Mar-a-Lago?
“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 my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
It is important to be very clear about what exactly Trump is alleging there in his tweets: That President Obama had ordered a wiretap on Trump’s own lines – he repeatedly uses the term “my phones.”
Compare that to what CNN reported last night about Manafort: That the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court had OK’d two separate wiretaps on Manafort – one in 2014 tied to Manafort’s work in Ukraine and and a second focused on Russian involvement in the 2016 election that extended through the early part of 2017. (It’s not clear when the second tap began.)
During the period of time covered by the second Manafort wiretapping, Trump and his former campaign chairman were still in contact. It’s not known whether any of the conversations between the two men were picked up on the wiretap. While Manafort does have a residence in Trump Tower, it’s not clear whether any FBI surveillance took place there. Is it possible Trump meant “my phones” as a catchall for every phone line associated with a person at Trump Tower? If that’s the case, why has neither Trump nor the White House made that clear before now as this allegation has festered?
It’s worth noting here that even if those conversations between Trump and Manafort were picked up in the surveillance, they would be eliminated unless the conversation had to do with Manafort’s ties to Russian officials. This is a process called “minimization” which is described in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 this way:
“Information acquired from an electronic surveillance conducted pursuant to this subchapter concerning any United States person may be used and disclosed by Federal officers and employees without the consent of the United States person only in accordance with the minimization procedures required by this subchapter. No otherwise privileged communication obtained in accordance with, or in violation of, the provisions of this subchapter shall lose its privileged character. No information acquired from an electronic surveillance pursuant to this subchapter may be used or disclosed by Federal officers or employees except for lawful purposes.”
But, let’s keep our eye on the ball here: The Justice Department tapping Manafort’s phone – even at his residence at Trump Tower (which we don’t know if they actually did) – is not the same thing as Obama ordering Trump’s “wires tapped.” It’s just not. Even if – and that’s a real “if” – conversations between the two men were picked up in the wiretap on Manafort.
It’s also important to remember that the Justice Department has repeatedly made clear that they have zero – ZERO – evidence to back up Trump’s claim that his wires were tapped during the 2016 campaign.
“Both FBI and [National Security Division] confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets,” the Justice Department said in a court filing earlier this month. And, as USA Today investigative reporter Brad Heath noted on Twitter last night, Justice has affirmed that they still have no evidence to back up Trump’s claims as recently as last Friday.
There’s also the fact that fomer FBI director James Comey testified on Capitol Hill this spring that there was no evidence to back up Trump’s claim that his wires were tapped. “We have no information to support those tweets,” Comey told the House intelligence committee.
And the fact that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has also definitively ruled out that Trump’s phones were tapped.
“For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the President-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign,” Clapper said on NBC in March. Asked directly whether there was a FISA warrant to tap Trump’s phone at Trump Tower, Clapper responded bluntly: “I can deny it.”
It’s understandable why Trump supporters – and those skeptical of the so-called surveillance state – would seek to conflate the latest reporting about the wire-tapping of Manafort’s phones with Trump’s still-unproven allegeations that his “lines” were wiretapped in the campaign. But they are just not the same thing.
Plus, there still exists considerable evidence – from the Department of Justice, the former FBI director and the former DNI – that Trump’s claim of being wiretapped is totally unproven and without evidence.
Details and words matter – particularly in a story this complicated. And the details and words reported by CNN last night do nothing to exonerate Trump from his still-spurious claim that he was wiretapped.