Less than 24 hours after Attorney General William Barr pronounced himself convinced that there was “spying” on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the President himself addressed the issue, and – as is his way – took it even further than Barr had.
“There was absolutely spying into my campaign. I’ll go a step further: In my opinion, it was illegal spying, unprecedented spying, and something that should never be allowed to happen in our country again. And I think his answer was actually a very accurate one. And a lot of people saw that, and a lot of people understand – many, many people understand the situation and want to be open to that situation. Hard to believe it could have happened, but it did. There was spying in my campaign.”
So. A day after the chief law enforcement official in the country suggested, without evidence, that there was “spying” on the President’s campaign, the President himself, without evidence, suggested that there was not only spying but that it was “illegal” and “unprecedented.”
There’s something unprecedented here, but it’s not what Trump is suggesting.
Because neither Barr nor Trump explained what they meant regarding their spying accusations – and, in Trump’s case, his assertion that this spying was illegal – it’s tough to know what specifically they are talking about.
As I wrote earlier this week, my best guess is that Trump at least is referring to the FISA warrant granted to the FBI to surveil onetime Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page in October 2016 – and subsequently re-upped three times. But even if you call it “spying,” which clearly has a pejorative element to it, what we should all be able to agree on is that it is not illegal.
Obtaining a FISA warrant is no easy thing. “All FISA applications go through a lengthy process of approvals within the executive branch as well as in front of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court],” said April Doss, the onetime senior minority counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation who is now chair of cybersecurity and privacy at the law firm Saul Ewing. “The key points for any Title I FISA application are that they go through lengthy internal vetting at the originating agency – in this case at the FBI. That vetting includes a lot of career FBI agents and lawyers and a supervisory special agent before it gets to the level of the FBI director or deputy director for approval. The same thing happens at the Department of Justice, where working-level career attorneys in the National Security Division review the application before it goes to the head of NSD for approval and then to the attorney general or deputy attorney general.”
In other words: You can argue about the merits of a law that allows American citizens to be surveilled, but there is no debate as to whether such a process is illegal. It isn’t. And the fact that Page’s FISA warrant was not only granted but renewed three times suggests that the number of career officials involved in this process were adequately convinced that there was real merit to the request.
Based on publicly available information – including the redacted FISA warrant released by the FBI in July 2018 – there is simply no evidence to back up Trump’s claim. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
The question that hangs over all of this – as always – is this one: Does Trump, since he is, you know, the President of the United States, know something that we don’t when it comes to his campaign?
Since I am not Trump, I don’t have any way of answering that to anyone’s complete satisfaction. But Trump’s history when it comes to allegations of surveillance and spying suggests we should take his latest assertion cum grano salis.
Remember back in March 2017, when Trump sent out a series of tweets alleging that then-President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap on Trump’s phones at Trump Tower? “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process,” Trump tweeted at the time. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Not then or at anytime since then did Trump provide any factual backup for his claim. National security and intelligence officials said there had never been an order from the White House to tap Trump’s phones.
My educated guess is that Trump learned about the Page FISA warrant at that time and simply misunderstood what the FBI was doing – and the process by which it had obtained the warrant. And that the same, uh, misunderstanding is what is driving Trump’s comments today about the “illegal” and “unprecedented” spying that happened in 2016.
But ignorance is no excuse! He’s the President of the United States! If you don’t know this stuff when you get into office, you have to (a) learn about it or (b) not make allegations unless and until you can, you know, prove them.
Except that we are talking about Donald Trump. So he isn’t likely to provide any evidence of these hugely explosive charges anytime soon. Or, really, ever.