After Donald Trump accused the Obama administration of wiretapping his phones during the campaign, tied to FBI applications for FISA warrants, James Comey denied that any such wiretapping took place. Does that satisfy the White House? Not exactly, although this interview between deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gets derailed over the finer points of legal versus illegal wiretaps:
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this morning that she “doesn’t think” President Trump accepts the FBI’s reported denial of his claims about being wiretapped at Trump Tower, adding she didn’t know whether he had spoken to the law enforcement agency about the matter.
FBI Director James Comey told the Justice Department to publicly refute Trump’s assertion that his predecessor, President Obama, ordered a wiretap of Trump’s phones prior to the November 2016 election, government sources familiar with Comey’s thinking told ABC News Sunday.
Comey expressed concerns that the president’s tweets created the impression that the FBI acted improperly, and he wanted to set the record straight, the sources said.
Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos comes across more as a fact checker or debate opponent than an interviewer in this case, in line with the news media’s sudden interest in speaking truth to power. That’s not such a bad thing, and it’s certainly an improvement over the free rides that Obama administration spokespeople got over the last eight years. Only this time, Stephanopoulos gets hung up on an irrelevant point about illegal and legal wiretaps. The FBI’s denial didn’t hinge on that issue — they denied doing wiretaps at all.
So did James Clapper, who recently ended his controversial tenure as Director of National Intelligence, albeit with more of a caveat:
Clapper told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “I can deny” the existence of a court order allowing the FBI to tap Trump Tower under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The national intelligence director from 2010 until Obama left office in January also said none of the agencies under his purview were involved in the type of wiretapping Trump alleged, without evidence.
“I would certainly hope” to be aware of any wiretapping of Trump during the 2016 campaign, Clapper said.
Clapper added that his remarks on the absence of any wiretapping activity would not cover potential state or local operations, nor “other authorized entities in the government.”
It’s worth pointing out that Clapper has a long track record of misleading public statements on issues of surveillance, including his testimony to Congress. One can take Clapper’s word for what it’s worth, which isn’t much on the Left or Right these days. That false testimony on domestic surveillance brings us right back to Sanders, who seems to be moving off the FISA thread and into a new allegation about the NSA. She never quite mentions No Such Agency, but it’s clear what she meant:
Sanders, deputy White House press secretary, suggested to “Good Morning America” today that Trump’s accusations could be right, and seemed to be referencing the National Security Agency‘s (NSA) mass collection of telephonic metadata from millions of Americans as evidence to support the claim, although she did not mention it directly.
“The administration was wiretapping American citizens,” Sanders said. “His administration could have done this.”
If that’s the basis for their claims, then the allegation has mutated over the last 48 hours, and that presents another credibility issue. The problematic NSA surveillance took place before Edward Snowden exposed it in 2013, long before Trump began his run for president. Congress and the Obama administration reluctantly took steps to curtail those activities once they got exposed. There haven’t been any more major revelations on NSA’s activities for quite a while, which is not to say that they haven’t been conducting domestic surveillance, but that there’s no evidence of it. This looks like a rhetorical Hail Mary to reverse-engineer Trump’s claims in light of the FBI’s denials.
Sanders does raise one good point, albeit not a winning one, in this debate with Stephanopoulos. The media has been seizing on anonymous sources for months to keep its Trump-Russia narrative afloat despite no evidence whatsoever that any collusion or even attempts at collusion took place. It’s a little hypocritical for the same media to demand that the White House produce witnesses on the record for them to back up their own allegations. On principle, Sanders is right. In this context, though, the only thing that keeps it from being a really great argument in this particular debate is the fact that the Trump administration really does run all of these agencies now and should be able to produce evidence to back up its claims. If the White House can’t do that, they should retract the claim and apologize.
Update: John Fund writes that this should be a learning experience:
By tweeting out his explosive charge early on Saturday morning, he left supporters and allies scratching their heads to figure out what he was talking about. … None of this explains why President Trump decided to roil official Washington on a weekend with allegations that none of his allies had been given any background on. The White House’s silence for over a day certainly added to the chaos.
Regardless of who is right, wrong, or merely confused on the issue of Trump, Obama, and Russia, the president’s behavior is a recipe for exasperation and mistrust among his allies. “How in the world can we go out on a limb for a guy who won’t tell us in advance that it won’t be sawed off,” one GOP congressman who was an early backer of Trump told me. “If you head a team, you have to lead it.”
You have to get the argument straight, too. The White House brought on Michael Dubke to straighten out the messaging issues, but so far there doesn’t appear to have been much change.