On Wednesday, President Trump was basking in the praise of political pundits who finally had a reason to refer to him as “presidential” after he had successfully read a speech in front of a joint session of Congress. Then news broke that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had likely lied during his confirmation hearings about not having had any contact with the Russian government during Trump’s presidential campaign, forcing Sessions to recuse himself on Thursday from any further investigation of the campaign’s ties to Russia — an outcome which reportedly made Trump livid. On Friday, the president started lashing out at Democrats, demanding an “immediate investigation” into Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s sharing of donuts with Vladimir Putin 14 years ago. Then, in a trademark early-morning Twitter rant on Saturday, Trump went a big step further and claimed — without citing any evidence — that President Obama had ordered a wiretap of him during the campaign:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! … 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!
President Obama’s spokesperson, Kevin Lewis, rejected Trump’s claim on Saturday afternoon:
A cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.
So where did Trump come up with his allegations? The prevailing theory is that by saying “just found out,” Trump really meant “I just heard about a Breitbart story detailing a conservative radio host’s conspiracy theory that Obama had staged a ‘silent coup’ against me” — though Trump did not cite the Breitbart story or any other source. The New York Times originally reported that none of Trump’s staff was willing to offer an explanation for the claim, though the Times later reported that White House counsel Donald McGahn was working on Saturday to “secure access to what [a senior White House official] described as a document issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing surveillance of Mr. Trump and his associates,” though they add that the official offered no evidence that such a document even exists, and that any such request would be considered unprecedented White House interference in an ongoing investigation at the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, other government officials appear to be scratching their heads:
As far as how other Republicans are reacting to the story, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, when asked by Fox News’ Brett Baier on Friday whether or not he was worried that the Obama administration had been surveilling members of the Trump campaign, said “I don’t think that’s the case.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, asked about the story during a town hall meeting with constituents on Saturday, acknowledged that if Trump was correct, it would be the “biggest political scandal since Watergate,” and said he was worried “if, in fact, the Obama administration was able to obtain a warrant lawfully about Trump campaign activity with foreign governments.”
Senator Ben Sasse, however, went much further. In a statement released on Saturday, the Nebraska Republican demanded that Trump back up such serious claims, insisting that “we are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the President’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots”:
Assuming Trump’s claim is just another right-wing conspiracy theory, here’s a good walk-through from CNN’s Brian Stelter on how the Breitbart story may have led to Trump’s tweets:
Then again, if Trump’s outburst was indeed the result of information he received at six in the morning from U.S. law-enforcement officials, he would thus seem to be confirming media reports that the Justice Department had collected enough evidence to convince a judge to issue a FISA warrant in the Russia investigation — meaning that there was probable cause that the Trump campaign had ties to Russia, or that Trump himself was culpable.
Aside from the fact that calling attention to such a possibility probably isn’t the best way to deflect attention from your campaign’s potential Russia ties, Trump’s conclusion is also suspect due to the fact that the alleged wiretap would have been extremely difficult to set up legally without cause. Here’s what a former senior intelligence official told the Washington Post in response to Trump’s tweets:
“It’s highly unlikely there was a wiretap. … It seems unthinkable. If that were the case by some chance, that means that a federal judge would have found that there was either probable cause that he had committed a crime or was an agent of a foreign power.”
A wiretap cannot be directed at a U.S. facility, the official said, without finding probable cause that the phone lines or Internet addresses were being used by agents of a foreign power — or by someone spying for or acting on behalf of a foreign government. “You can’t just go around and tap buildings,” the official said.
None of this means a FISA warrant wasn’t issued to tap members of the Trump campaign. It has already been widely reported that there is an ongoing FBI investigation into some of Trump campaign officials’ alleged ties to Russia, and it’s possible that wiretaps of those officials have been a part of that investigation. (Trump’s Russia-linked former campaign manager Paul Manafort, for instance, has an apartment at Trump Tower in Manhattan.)
In addition, the phones of Russian officials are routinely monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, which is how Trump’s former national-security adviser Michael Flynn was recorded having a conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak — surveillance which ultimately led to Flynn’s downfall.
But the allegation that Trump made on Saturday was that President Obama had ordered a wiretap on him, which would have been either incredibly hard to do legally, or illegal, as there are laws and procedures in place which are designed to prevent presidents from surveilling political rivals.
So, Trump may have been carelessly passing along a baseless conspiracy theory without confirming its veracity with government officials, and thus using the bully pulpit of the White House to accuse a former president of a criminal act. Or, if President Obama did personally order a wiretap on Trump as the new president alleges, that would indeed be an enormous Watergate-level scandal. Or, if the Justice Department was operating independently as designed, and law-enforcement agents gathered enough evidence linking Trump campaign officials to Russia for a judge to authorize a wiretap, that is also a big deal, and even bigger news if agents gathered enough evidence to get a warrant to tap Trump himself.
The most likely explanation, however, is still that Trump probably had no informed idea what he was talking about. Indeed, there are reports that “numerous” Trump aides were surprised by Trump’s allegations on Saturday, even though it’s also been reported that the Breitbart story was being passed around by White House staff on Friday.
Then again, Trump, who on Tuesday told Congress that “the time for trivial fights is behind us,” did have another, far less surprising concern to air his thoughts about on Saturday morning:
This post has been updated throughout to incorporate additional information and context.