How quickly Washington forgets. It was only two weeks ago that the biggest story in the nation’s capital was how President Donald Trump’s aides were pressuring the FBI and allies in Congress to shoot down the stories whirling around about his associates’ ties to Russia.
That was before the president’s Saturday-morning tweet storm. Trump accused his predecessor of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower during the election. The freakout over this unproven allegation is going into its sixth day. Barack Obama is apparently furious.
Many observers have already noted that Trump likes to tweet outrageous things to distract from damaging news stories. One explanation for Trump’s accusations about illegal wiretaps is that he was trying to change the subject from the Russia investigation.
But that’s only part of it. Trump’s tweets, and his ignorance about how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act works, have prompted Obama’s last director of national intelligence, James Clapper and others to publicly refute the stories about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Well what do you know? That’s exactly what Trump wanted the FBI to do last month.
Let’s start with Clapper. On Sunday he said publicly that, when he left his post in January, there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Clapper was asked about this directly. He responded: “This could have unfolded or become available since the time since I left the government. At the time we had no evidence of such collusion.” When Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, was asked the same question on “Fox News Sunday” in January, he declined to answer.
Both Clapper and James Comey (who was Obama’s last FBI director and remains in the Trump administration) also said over the weekend that there were no FISA warrants against Trump or his campaign. This means one of two things: either the Justice Department concluded there was not enough evidence to justify asking the FISA court to warrant electronic surveillance of the Trump campaign, or the FISA court was asked and itself concluded there was not enough evidence to grant that warrant. (Historically, the bar for obtaining such warrants has been very low.)
On top of all of this, Congress is getting involved. This week, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence announced that it would examine Trump’s allegations. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Lindsey Graham, the ranking Democratic member and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on crime and terrorism, have written Comey and the acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, to find out whether any wiretaps were authorized too. Unless something changes dramatically, their inquiries will further support Comey and Clapper: There were no authorized wiretaps of Trump and his associates.
This is significant. On the day before Trump’s inauguration, the New York Times broke an explosive story headlined, “Intercepted Russian Communications Part of Inquiry Into Trump Associates.” The actual piece does not say whether the intercepts examined by the FBI and the intelligence community were generated through a FISA warrant against Trump and his associates. “It is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Mr. Trump’s campaign, or Mr. Trump himself,” it said. It’s possible that the intercepts were targeted at Russian officials and that conversations with Trump associates were picked up incidentally on the wiretaps—as happened to Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Even still, the allegation that at least three Trump associates—Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and Carter Page—were the focus of government eavesdropping has been circulating in the media since the Times broke the story. Those allegations appear to now be put to rest. Not because of Trump’s pressure on Comey and other officials, but because of Democrats’ eagerness to defend Obama from the charge that he illegally wiretapped Trump. Comey and Clapper went public to correct the record and state that there were no wiretaps, because Trump had distorted the record. Somehow, improbably, this all worked out swimmingly for the president.
Before Trump gets too comfortable, he should know that counter-intelligence probes can change as new evidence comes to light. He also damaged his own standing as president by tweeting such a serious charge with no supporting evidence.
But this is also not the first time. During the Indiana primary against Senator Ted Cruz, Trump accused his opponent’s father of playing a role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He claimed 3 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election. He said the US murder rate was at its highest level in 47 years. He accused the media of not reporting terrorist attacks in the US and Europe. He even claimed the US has no chess grand masters. The list of Trump’s falsehoods is long.
And yet, so far, Trump has not paid much of a political price for his fabulism. It’s working out well for him. This time his wild accusation inadvertently prompted an Obama senior intelligence official to puncture a narrative that was consuming his presidency. Economists call this kind of thing a moral hazard. In politics we call it dumb luck. Bloomberg