CNN is reporting that the U.S. government used a FISA warrant to tap the phones of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort starting sometime last year before the election. The wiretap continued into this year and may even have picked up conversations between Manafort and President Trump:
Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to three sources familiar with the investigation. Two of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive…
The conversations between Manafort and Trump continued after the President took office, long after the FBI investigation into Manafort was publicly known, the sources told CNN. They went on until lawyers for the President and Manafort insisted that they stop, according to the sources…
The FBI wasn’t listening in June 2016, the sources said, when Donald Trump Jr. led a meeting that included Manafort, then campaign chairman, and Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, with a Russian lawyer who had promised negative information on Hillary Clinton.
There’s a lot here so let’s walk through it. First, we’ve known for a while that Manafort has been under investigation, so the wiretap doesn’t come as a complete surprise. CNN hints that the results of the wiretap “sparked concerns” about collusion with Russia but in the very next sentence adds “the evidence is not conclusive.” However, the fact that the wiretap came from a FISA court seems to prove that investigators believed Manafort was acting on behalf of a foreign power.
Second, CNN doesn’t know whether President Trump was caught up in any of the wiretapping efforts, the story only says it’s possible. Trump famously alleged on Twitter back in March that President Obama had wiretapped him at Trump Tower. It doesn’t appear Trump was the target, but CNN does note that Manafort has a residence in Trump Tower. It’s not confirmed that Manafort’s phone there was wiretapped but it may have been.
Third, even if Trump wasn’t personally wire-tapped, it seems rather unusual for the administration of one party to wire-tap the campaign chairman of the other party weeks before an election. CNN reports that the FBI was not listening in on Manafort in June when he was part of the meeting between Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer. (Apparently, Manafort’s notes on the meeting didn’t contain anything incriminating.) Manafort eventually resigned his position with the campaign on August 19th. Did the wire-tapping begin prior to that? CNN isn’t clear:
Manafort was ousted from the campaign in August. By then the FBI had noticed what counterintelligence agents thought was a series of odd connections between Trump associates and Russia. The CIA also had developed information, including from human intelligence sources, that they believed showed Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered his intelligence services to conduct a broad operation to meddle with the US election, according to current and former US officials.
The FBI surveillance teams, under a new FISA warrant, began monitoring Manafort again, sources tell CNN.
In any case, even if the wire-tapping began just after he’d left his position, wire-tapping Manafort seems like it would offer a window into Trump’s inner circle weeks before the election.
Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, have spent months arguing that James Comey botched the email investigation and handed Trump the election. Now that Manafort is under the gun are we about to see a strange new respect for James Comey’s skills as an investigator? I suspect we are.