By now it is painfully clear that the Trump administration and its allies are doing everything they can to make plausible the president's unfounded claim President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Apparently, that includes pretending to offer new information.
To wit, early Wednesday afternoon House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who as recently as this week called for leakers to be identified and prosecuted, oh-so vaguely disclosed some information he obtained seemingly via leak. Nunes, who served on Trump's transition team, is spearheading the House investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as Trump’s wiretapping claim. That claim relies on uncorroborated reporting from an alt-right website.
According to Nunes, who held press conferences on Capitol Hill and outside the White House on Wednesday, information about some members of the Trump team was gathered by the U.S. intelligence community during the presidential transition in what Nunes said amounted to “incidental collection." That of course means that these Trump associates weren't the targets of whatever surveillance Nunes is referring to. The chairman also said he believes the collection was done legally and that none of what he has seen relates to the FBI’s investigation of connections between Trump’s aides and the Russian government. The existence of that inquiry was confirmed publicly for the first time on Monday by FBI director James Comey in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes disclosed neither the names of the those who had information gathered on them, nor his source.
Mind you, whatever warrants have been issued for wiretapping or other federal surveillance purposes, President Trump would have access to those records as president. He would also be able to declassify them. It is therefore curious that the White House is unable or unwilling to furnish any evidence that the president was surveilled, per his claim.
The big story here isn’t Nunes’ grotesque disembowelment of irony in which he’s suddenly embraced leaks. Hypocritical politicians are old news. No, what’s going here is that Nunes is attempting to provide Trump’s discredited charge that President Obama had wiretapped some degree of cover using smoke and mirrors.
Here's the "revelatory" part of Nunes' statement:
I recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.
Details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration—details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value—were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.
I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.
To be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or any investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.
As I'll show in a moment, none of this is necessarily new information.
During his press conference on Capitol Hill, Nunes had the following exchange with a pair of reporters. Here he blatantly contradicted himself on a very simple matter in a span of a few seconds, about whether Trump was personally surveilled.
Reporter: And was the president also part of that incidental collection, his communications?
Nunes: [Nodding] Yes.
Reporter: They were?
Second reporter: So wait, let me just clarify. The president of the United States' personal communications were intercepted--
Nunes: I think we have to--when we talk about intelligence products here we have to be very careful. From what I know right now it looks like incidental collection. We don't know exactly how that was picked up, but we're trying to get to the bottom of it.
Second reporter: So the President of the United States' personal communication was collected in incidental collection?
Nunes: It's possible. We won't know until we get the information on Friday and that's why, look, I think the NSA is going to comply. You know, I am concerned yet--we don't now whether or not the FBI is going to comply. And I placed a call. Hopefully, I'm waiting to talk to Director Comey later today.
Nunes sounds like a person who either does not firmly believe what he is saying, or is unsure of the completeness of the information he has been given by a source. Or both.
Two months ago The New York Times reported that at least three former Trump aides had their communications intercepted by U.S. authorities. According to a January 19 article, communications involving former Trump aides Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Roger Stone were being probed by the FBI as part of a broader investigation into the Trump camp's ties to the Russian government. The article did not say who the targets of the surveillance were, nor whether President Obama had requested any surveillance of Trump associates. Here's what the Times said:
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said...
The counterintelligence investigation centers at least in part on the business dealings that some of the president-elect’s past and present advisers have had with Russia. Mr. Manafort has done business in Ukraine and Russia. Some of his contacts there were under surveillance by the National Security Agency for suspected links to Russia’s Federal Security Service, one of the officials said.
Mr. Manafort is among at least three Trump campaign advisers whose possible links to Russia are under scrutiny. Two others are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign, and Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative.
Indeed, Trump himself would later cite this very New York Times article as a source for his wiretapping claim during his March 15 interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
It should be noted that the Times article and Nunes' statement do not contain mutually exclusive information. It's true the Times piece strongly suggests that the communications from the three Trump associates in question pertain to Russia, whereas Nunes avers that the report he saw didn't pertain to Russia. However, Nunes was careful to point out to one reporter that his statement was based on only what he had seen, and that there may indeed be information gathered linking Trump associates and Russia.
After all, mere hours before Nunes made waves, the AP reported that Manafort was paid millions of dollars by a Russian oligarch to influence U.S. policy to benefit the Russian government.
Tellingly, in his statement Nunes uses the phrase "I confirmed" instead of "The Committee has confirmed." That's because Nunes took the highly unusual step of keeping his own committee -- the one charged with investigating the nexus of Trump, Russia, and surveillance -- in the dark about what he "recently confirmed." Sure enough, in response House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) issued a scathing statement denouncing Nunes for withholding this "recently confirmed" information from the committee. Another interesting nugget is that Nunes personally briefed the White House. That's the same White House that Nunes is supposed to be investigating.
Now, look how far afield we've gone from Trump's allegation in that infamous tweet. Remember, this was the original claim:
Even with Nunes' announcement today, the same damning points against Trump's allegation remain. Namely,
1. No evidence has emerged suggesting Obama had Trump Tower or Trump wiretapped.
2. No evidence has emerged suggesting Trump had been wiretapped at all.
3. No evidence has emerged suggesting that Trump and associates were surveilled in any way before the election. Indeed, Nunes made clear that this alleged surveillance occurred during the transition period.
4. No evidence has emerged suggesting that any surveillance of Trump and associates was more than incidental, with "incidental" meaning they were not the targets of the surveillance.
Trump is already claiming he's been "somewhat" vindicated, and you can expect more chicanery in the coming days. Already some serious goalpost-moving has occurred over the last two and a half weeks after Trump fired off these tweets and received immediate pushback.
Later on March 4, FBI director James Comey requested that the Justice Department publicly rebuke Trump's wiretap claim, according to The New York Times.
On March 5 it was reported that an Obama spokesman said the claim was "simply false," while a U.S. intelligence official said it was "just nonsense." Amid growing demands for evidence of wiretapping, White House press secretary Sean Spicer tweeted that President Trump has requested that Congress investigate the matter. That same day, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Meet the Press there had been no wiretap of Trump, nor of any attempts to obtain a warrant for general surveillance purposes under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
With its credibility diminishing and under increasing scrutiny, the Trump administration sought to wiggle out of the straightjacket the president made for himself by claiming that he wasn't referring strictly to the surveillance of phone calls at Trump Tower. As Spicer insisted on March 13, "The President used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities." Meanwhile, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway added her infamous two cents about "microwaves turn that into cameras."
Also on March 13, the White House failed to meet the House Intelligence Committee's deadline for submitting evidence of alleged wiretapping.
On March 16 the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that they had seen "no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016."
In a bizarre sidenote the same day, Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano made the wild claim that the British GCHQ intelligence service wiretapped Trump at the behest of President Obama. GCHQ called the claim "utterly ridiculous." Fox News made clear that it was unable to substantiate the claim. Not coincidentally, Napolitano hasn't been seen on the network since.
On March 20 Trump's wiretap charge was seemingly put in the ground permanently when Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee. The FBI director flatly declared there was no evidence supporting Trump's claim.
Then came Nunes, as if from the clouds on March 22, to reveal that he had seen reports indicating that Trump aides were legally surveilled after the election. Later when speaking with CNN's Jake Tapper, Nunes came to this stunning conclusion:
"I think the bottom line here is, you know, President Trump to some degree is right, that you know, he did end up in some intelligence reports and I don't think he knew about it... It does appear his name and people and others ended up into intelligence reports. So look, you can make what you want of it, but you know most people would say that is surveillance."
Two points here: First, that sounds nothing remotely like what Trump claimed to ignite this ridiculous ongoing melodrama.
Second, notice how Nunes defines "surveillance" in this case. It seems he is saying that because someone's name appeared in an intelligence report, then that is surveillance, or at least, evidence thereof.
It is entirely possible that Nunes is using "surveillance" in the loosest of senses -- to mean the gathering of any information by any means that lands a person's name in an intelligence report, including the intercepting of private communications or the culling publicly available data. Nunes may be using this broadened definition to suggest there is new evidence of the targeting of Trump and his associates when in fact there isn't. Or, he's unsure of this "new" information he's been given. If he gets called out on this, he can always point to The New York Times report on the existence of surveillance of Trump associates Manafort, Page, and Stone, and say he was merely saying he had "recently confirmed" what was in said Times article.
Whatever the case, Wednesday's display by Nunes perpetuates a savage insult to Americans by this nefarious administration and its cowardly enablers. Normally it would be up to someone like Devin Nunes to be an honest inquisitor and get to the bottom of this mess, but obviously that's just not possible at this point.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that there had been no wiretap of "Trump Tower." The FBI had wiretapped a unit in the building from 2011 to 2013 while investigating a multimillion dollar Russian gambling ring. The investigation yielded more than 30 indictments. There is still no publicly available information to suggest that Trump himself was wiretapped, or that Trump was the target of government surveillance.