Welcome to today’s political Rorschach test. The Washington Post reported last night that the Department of Justice sought out and received a FISA warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page last summer while he was still connected to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Does this vindicate the media obsession on the Russian-interference story, or does it vindicate Trump’s allegation of having been spied upon by the Obama administration?
The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said.
The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.
This is the clearest evidence so far that the FBI had reason to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign that a Trump campaign adviser was in touch with Russian agents. Such contacts are now at the center of an investigation into whether the campaign coordinated with the Russian government to swing the election in Trump’s favor.
Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s evidence that the Department of Justice sought to surveil Trump campaign figures using intel resources, but not necessarily that they had real evidence and/or a legitimate “reason to believe” that Trump campaign officials were in touch with Russian agents. It’s extremely easy for the government to get approvals for FISA warrants, as we have discovered in the debates over renewals of Section 702 of the PATRIOT Act. That’s actually the crux of the issue: did certain Trump campaign officials knowingly collude with Russian intelligence — or did the Obama administration spy on political rivals in order to impact the election outcome? Both? Neither?
We don’t know the answer to the second question, but we have at least a hint about whether the Obama administration ever got an answer to the first:
Page has not been accused of any crimes, and it is unclear whether the Justice Department might later seek charges against him or others in connection with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The counterintelligence investigation into Russian efforts to influence U.S. elections began in July, officials have said. Most such investigations don’t result in criminal charges.
Had that warrant produced relevant evidence of a crime, does anyone doubt that it would have emerged by now? It only took a few weeks for the outgoing administration to leak the transcripts of Michael Flynn having a perfectly reasonable conversation with Russian ambassador Sergei Kirlyak during the transition. That leak that itself was illegal, and aided by an unusual rule change that allowed for much wider dissemination of unredacted transcripts involving US persons. The warrant in this case went for at least 180 days, and maybe longer, as the WaPo notes that it was renewed “more than once,” so it’s not as if they didn’t have lots of opportunity to put together an indictment — or at least some factual basis for suspecting collusion that insiders would have loooved to leak.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we know with certainty that collusion didn’t take place, but it’s at least an indication that the DoJ never found any real evidence of it despite using intel resources to surveil the Trump team. This story does give further evidence that the Obama administration was indeed surveilling political opponents, but it doesn’t quite establish whether they did so for legitimate reasons. We are still left with Eli Lake’s advice to remember that it’s quite possible that we have two potential scandals here — and that it’s worth getting to the bottom of both.