The weekends of many a journalist and lawyer were disturbed by the 45th president’s tweetstorm alleging that the 44th president went “so low” as to “tapp my phones [sic]” at Trump Tower prior to the election. It would be a shocking coincidence if the Trump tantrum was not spurred by a Breitbart story the very day before charging that Barack Obama sought to execute a “silent coup” against Trump utilizing surveillance operations. Separating fact from fiction and mischaracterization is difficult in a situation that involves highly classified operations and incredibly arcane legal processes. But the best guess we can make is that Breitbart picked up and significantly distorted some earlier British reporting on FBI surveillance requests related to its ongoing investigation of possible Russian interference with the 2016 election, and then Trump added his own distinctive twists to the “story” as he imagined it.
What does actually seem to have happened is this, as explained by Julian Sanchez:
[T]he allegation made by various news sources is that, in connection with a multi-agency intelligence investigation of Russian interference with the presidential election, the FBI sought an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing them to monitor transactions between two Russian banks and four persons connected with the Trump campaign. The Guardian’s report alleges that initial applications submitted over the summer, naming “four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials,” were rejected by the FISC. But according to the BBC, a narrower order naming only the Russian banks as direct targets was ultimately approved by the FISC in October.
In Breitbart’s account, the FBI became “the Obama administration,” and in Trump’s, it was “Obama” himself. This is not a small detail, since any White House knowledge about, to say nothing of direction of, this type of surveillance would be illegal.
Similarly, the approved surveillance in October was aimed at Russian banks, not anyone in the Trump campaign, and was very likely limited to stored financial records to determine whether money changed hands with respect to the 2016 elections. In the Breitbart version, this became “wiretaps” and “monitoring an opposing presidential campaign using the high-tech surveillance powers of the federal intelligence services.” Trump simplified it all to Obama “tapp[ing] my phones.”
So while it is probably not accurate to say the whole brouhaha is a Trumpian fabrication, it sure appears to be a fabulist interpretation of murky events. The alternative explanation is a blatantly extralegal surveillance operation orchestrated by Barack Obama, who despite all appearances to the contrary was able to use James Comey and the FBI as his pawns.
The events surrounding FISC proceedings are, by the way, murky by design, which leads to another can of worms: Trump may be incidentally declassifying large swaths of secret information via his Twitter tirades. The laws surrounding covert surveillance are meant to ensure thorough review of requests to make sure the “silent coup” Breitbart is alleging cannot occur — but for obvious reasons the proceedings are indeed “silent.” If the president himself can blow all this up on social media, then we really are at risk of a system where political whim is the only law.