Photo via The White House/Flickr (Public Domain)
Let’s look at the facts.
Supporters of President Donald Trump and far-right websites are claiming the president is “vindicated” in his claims that the Obama administration had his “wires tapped” in light of CNN’s report on Monday night that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was wiretapped “before and after the election.”
However, claims of vindication are premature.
On March 4, Trump made the explosive claim that the Obama administration tapped phones in Trump Tower before his election victory in an early-morning tweet.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump wrote. He said in a subsequent tweet: “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!”
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
On Monday, CNN reported that Manafort was wiretapped under secret court orders. Information collected through the surveillance could show that Manafort encouraged Russian operatives to help with the Trump campaign, CNN reports, but the information at this point is inconclusive.
Following CNN’s report, far-right websites like Breitbart claimed Trump’s wiretapping tweet was vindicated. “Trump Vindicated” also became a trending term on Twitter on Tuesday morning. But the claim of vindication ignores critical facts in CNN’s story.
So, does CNN’s report “vindicate” Trump’s claim that Obama ordered surveillance on him, as many now claim? Let’s take a look at what we know and what we don’t.
Manafort served on Trump’s campaign from March 2016 to August 2016. He served as Trump’s campaign manager for just three months, starting in May 2016.
Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation in 2014, according to CNN, as investigators looked into his consulting work for a political party in Ukraine. The surveillance on him was discontinued “at some point last year,” CNN reported, and the FBI restarted surveillance after getting a secret court warrant that extended at least into “early this year.”
Obtaining the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants authorizing wiretaps on Manafort required approval from “top Justice Department and FBI officials,” CNN reports. Further, these officials would have had to provide the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) “with information showing suspicion that the subject of the warrant may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.”
However, CNN’s story explicitly points out that the FBI was not wiretapping in June 2016, when Manafort attended the now-infamous meeting with a Russian lawyer who allegedly promised to deliver the Trump campaign damaging material on Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, also attended the meeting.
The FBI was also not listening to Manafort in May, when he became Trump’s campaign manager, CNN reported. By the time he was ousted from the campaign, the FBI had begun to notice “odd connections” between Trump associates and Russia and reportedly began monitoring him again under a separate FISA warrant. CNN reported that it was unclear whether the government eavesdropped on Manafort in his residence in Trump Tower.
As New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman points out, the surveillance stopped when Manafort joined the Trump campaign and restarted roughly when he left.
CNN says that it is not clear if Trump himself was picked up incidentally as part of the Manafort wiretap.
Also, as CNN reporter Marshall Cohen points out, the wiretap pertained to Manafort, not Trump Tower.
Wiretap CNN reported was on Manafort the person, not Trump Tower the building. Though he obviously had some contact with the tower.
— Marshall Cohen (@Marshall_Cohen) September 19, 2017
Judging from the timeline in CNN’s story, Manafort’s wiretapping does not vindicate Trump’s claim of Obama administration wiretapping, as he was reportedly not associated with Trump’s campaign while the FBI was listening.
Former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired in early May, told members of Congress during testimony in March that “we have no information to support” Trump’s wiretap claims but refused to elaborate. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said on MSNBC’s Meet the Press in March that he “can deny” that Trump’s phones were wiretapped.
The Department of Justice said earlier this month that there was no evidence to support Trump’s claim that Obama wiretapped him during the 2016 election.
That said, the reporting leaves open the possibility that Manafort was under surveillance at his residence in Trump Tower. Further, it’s possible that Trump—while not the subject of the surveillance—was incidentally recorded while speaking with Manafort.
Even if Manafort was surveilled at Trump Tower, and even if Trump was incidentally surveilled while speaking with Manafort, the facts as we currently know them do not support the president’s claim that former President Barack Obama ordered surveillance on Trump or Trump Tower, as he explicitly claimed.
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