The Obama Camp’s Disingenuous Denials on FISA Surveillance of Trump
President Trump’s early Saturday morning tweeting has exploded to the forefront an uncovered scandal I’ve been talking about since early January (including in this weekend’s column): The fact that the Obama Justice Department and the FBI investigated associates of Donald Trump, and likely Trump himself, in the heat of the presidential campaign.
To summarize, reporting indicates that, prior to June 2016, the Obama Justice Department and FBI considered a criminal investigation of Trump associates, and perhaps Trump himself, based on concerns about connections to Russian financial institutions. Preliminary poking around indicated that there was nothing criminal involved. Rather than shut the case down, though, the Obama Justice Department converted it into a national-security investigation under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA allows the government, if it gets court permission, to conduct electronic surveillance (which could include wiretapping, monitoring of e-mail, and the like) against those it alleges are “agents of a foreign power.” FISA applications and the evidence garnered from them are classified – i.e., we would not know about any of this unless someone had leaked classified information to the media, a felony.
In June, the Obama Justice Department submitted an application that apparently “named” Trump in addition to some of his associates. As I have stressed, it is unclear whether “named” in this context indicates that Trump himself was cited as a person the Justice Department was alleging was a Russian agent whom it wanted to surveil. It could instead mean that Trump’s name was merely mentioned in an application that sought to conduct surveillance on other alleged Russian agents. President Trump’s tweets on Saturday claimed that “President Obama . . . tapp[ed] my phones[,]” which makes it more likely that Trump was targeted for surveillance, rather than merely mentioned in the application.
In any event, the FISA court reportedly turned down the Obama Justice Department’s request, which is notable: The FISA court is notoriously solicitous of government requests to conduct national-security surveillance (although, as I’ve noted over the years, the claim by many that it is a rubber-stamp is overblown).
Not taking no for an answer, the Obama Justice Department evidently returned to the FISA court in October 2016, the critical final weeks of the presidential campaign. This time, the Justice Department submitted a narrowly tailored application that did not mention Trump. The court apparently granted it, authorizing surveillance of some Trump associates. It is unknown whether that surveillance is still underway, but the New York Times has identified – again, based on illegal leaks of classified information – at least three of its targets: Paul Manafort (the former Trump campaign chairman who was ousted in August), and two others whose connection to the Trump campaign was loose at best, Manafort’s former political-consulting business partner Roger Stone, and investor Carter Page. The Times report (from mid-January) includes a lot of heavy breathing about potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia; but it ultimately concedes that the government’s FISAinvestigation may have nothing to do with Trump, the campaign, or alleged Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. election by hacking e-mail accounts.