Donald Trump had already been up for over an hour, tweeting about the attorney general and his meetings with the Russians. Clearly, the president was still fuming about Jeff Sessions’ announcement that he was recusing himself from any investigations into Russian interference with the election. But as the sun began to rise over the Florida coast on Saturday morning, he did something extraordinary, even by his standards. In a series of tweets, he accused his predecessor, Barack Obama, of wiretapping Trump Tower during the election.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”Do
And a few minutes later: “Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to the election? Turned down by a 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 the election!”
And finally he tweeted, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp[sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate! Bad (or sick) guy!” before moving on, after only a brief pause, to comment on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s departure from the Apprentice.
One cannot simply dismiss these tweets as the rantings of a thin-skinned, angry old man. To feel sympathy to Trump, you’d have to ignore the ways that American wiretaps work. You’d have to be unconcerned about the underlying issues that led the government to seek a wiretap in the first place. And you’d have to be willing to suspend your sense of patriotism and see everything through a partisan lens.
First, a little background on wiretaps. They’re used in investigations where law enforcement suspects that there is ongoing criminal activity. Because wiretaps are intrusions into privacy, law enforcement has to get a warrant to be able to install one. That means that investigators have to apply to a judge with enough evidence to show probable cause that a criminal offense is being committed. If the judge finds that the standard is met, he or she will issue the warrant, and the wiretap can be installed.
The president cannot just order a wiretap. If the president tried to install a wiretap without a warrant from a judge, the telecommunications company would reject it. Indeed, failure to do could result in civil penalties for the company if they agreed to do it without the proper paperwork.
If President Obama tried to order law enforcement, in this case the FBI, to get the wiretap without getting a warrant, it would require a much broader conspiracy involving FBI Director James Comey. But if the FBI was really in the tank with an Obama administration effort to secretly wiretap the Trump campaign, why would Comey then turn around and send a letter to House Republicans re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails?
If the FBI wiretapped Trump Tower, as Trump alleges, that means investigators thought they would uncover evidence of criminal activity, and a judge agreed.
Trump himself may not have been the target of the investigation, assuming reports of its existence are true. He had been running his campaign out of Trump Tower, and once public financing was available, he raised the rent the campaign paid. By August, nearly 200 campaign staff were reported to be working in Trump Tower. Depending on the crime at issue, it could have been any number of them.
So, what was the underlying criminal activity the FBI was investigating? It wasn’t just that Trump had invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. Throughout the campaign and after, there had been allegations that Trump campaign staff had been in contact with Russian officials. Some, like campaign chairman Paul Manafort and national security aide Mike Flynn, had actually received money from Russian or Russian-backed sources in the past. Others, like sometime adviser Carter Page and national security staffer J.D. Gordon, had modified the Republican platform to make it more aligned with Russian interests. It’s now been confirmed that senior campaign officials and surrogates like Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Just talking to a foreign ambassador is not a crime. Members of Congress and political campaigns talk to all kinds of foreign nationals, as Republicans have noted. But what would be of concern would be a conspiracy to shift U.S. policy in Russia’s favor in exchange for some kind of quid pro quo. What would be of further concern would be the sharing of national security information with a hostile foreign power in ways that weaken the national security of the United States. And once campaign officials who had been in contact with Russia became government officials with access to highly classified knowledge of intelligence sources and methods, the concerns would have only deepened.
But no one knows exactly what happened here. That’s why we have investigations to sort out what is hyperbole and what is a real danger to the United States. The evidence is not in, and the FBI will continue to get to the bottom of it, absent political interference. Our whole system of government is set up not to take allegations on face value, but to have an impartial investigation to uncover the evidence and see if, in the light of day, it supports the allegations or not.
Trump was right about one thing this morning: Elections are sacred. That is why it is frankly shocking that Republicans aren’t up in arms about the fact that the Kremlin interfered in American democracy after decades of viewing Russia as the evil empire. If they really believe in putting America first, wouldn’t they want an open, objective and thorough investigation that can reassure the nation that decisions are being made in the best interest of Americans?