Trump accuses Obama of illegal wiretap
President Donald Trump once again threw Washington into an uproar this week when he accused his predecessor of orchestrating a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to tap his phone during the election. “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,” the president tweeted at 3:35 a.m. on Saturday. “Bad (or sick) guy!” The incendiary allegation, offered without any evidence, was immediately denied by President Obama, who released a statement declaring that neither he nor any White House official “ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.” Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he was unaware of any wiretaps placed on Trump Tower. FBI Director James Comey reportedly urged the Justice Department to publicly refute the allegations of wiretapping. Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer said that the president had asked Congress to look into his claim as part of the existing investigations into Russian meddling in the election. With so many intelligence leaks about contact between Trump associates and Russians, Spicer said, “it makes one wonder how some of this happened without the existence of surveillance.”
Trump made his allegations shortly after reading an article on the Breitbart website that summarized claims by right-wing radio host Mark Levin that federal officials loyal to Obama were conducting a “silent coup.” Levin referred to a published report from November that said the FBI had successfully sought a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to examine the activities of some of Trump’s associates. Levin also cited a New York Times report from January that claimed that intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials were examining “intercepted communications and financial transactions” between Russian officials and Trump associates.
The day before he sent out his Obama tweets, Trump was “steaming, raging mad,” The Washington Post reported. He was furious over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision last week to recuse himself from any investigation into Russia; that decision came because of revelations Sessions had twice met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the election campaign. Trump blamed the staff for not being prepared to defend Sessions, and for letting the Russia story dominate the narrative of his presidency. “Nobody has seen him that upset,” a source told CNN.
What the editorials said
President Trump’s reckless tweets threaten “the health of the democracy itself,” said The New York Times. He clearly has no evidence for smearing Obama—if he did, the White House wouldn’t be demanding that Congress “find out if what he said is true.” So this was “one president baselessly charging criminality by another.” Let’s not forget that Trump has always “trafficked in reckless rumors and accusations,” including the baseless claim that Obama was born in Kenya, said USA Today. But now that he’s in the Oval Office, Trump can no longer funnel his rage into ridiculous tweets. He is “shedding” his credibility—“credibility he’ll need in moments of external crisis.”
Trump’s accusations may be unproven, said The Wall Street Journal, but so are Democrats’ claims that his team was “colluding with the enemy in the Kremlin.” What we need is for “some grown-ups to intervene [and] discover the facts”—on both issues. While partisan Democrats are demanding a special counsel or a special congressional committee, that would entail starting the investigation from scratch. The task should be left to the House and Senate intelligence committees, which have already “been investigating Russia’s meddling for months.”
What the columnists said
Trump’s claim that his phones were tapped is “simply preposterous,” said Bradley Moss in Politico.com, and reveals “his complete ignorance” of how government surveillance works. The president cannot order surveillance of any U.S. citizen. To wiretap suspected spies and terrorists in the U.S., the FBI and Justice Department can apply for a warrant through a secret FISA court, where they must demonstrate “probable cause” for suspecting that the target is an agent of a foreign power. But it’s also possible to get FISA warrants for investigations that don’t involve wiretapping—indeed, the one reportedly covering Trump’s associates “targeted only financial records involving foreign banks.”
The issue here isn’t whether Obama personally “ordered” surveillance, said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. It’s whether his Justice Department did—and whether the White House knew about it. Given the sensitive nature of conducting surveillance on a presidential candidate’s campaign, it seems unthinkable that the Justice Department wouldn’t have consulted the White House. And unless there was “some powerful evidence” that Trump was colluding with Russia, that would constitute “an extraordinary, politically motivated abuse of presidential power.”
But why did Trump publicly accuse Obama of wiretapping him? said Peter Beinart in TheAtlantic.com. Clearly, he’s trying to “discredit” any revelations about his Russian connections as motivated by partisan politics. In Trump’s telling, the FBI and Justice Department are just “Democratic front groups” filled with Obama plants. Any damaging information that emerges from here, he can say, is “part of the massive conspiracy to deny Trump his rightful triumph.”
Maybe Trump’s tweets were motivated by rage, not political strategy, said Chris Cillizza in WashingtonPost.com. Whenever he gets angry, “he looks for a way to strike back,” even if he has to lie or resort to exaggerated personal insults. But if Trump is willing to call his predecessor a “sick” Nixonian criminal less than two months into his administration, “what will he be saying in a year’s time?”
Illustration by Howard McWilliam. Cover photos from Newscom (2), Getty