President Trump’s unsubstantiated assertion that he was wiretapped by his predecessor has thrown official Washington into disarray and increased pressure from all sides for a thorough and independent investigation of the nature and circumstances of the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia.
The White House says it wants an examination of what it alleges to be politically motivated activity during the election. Mr. Trump’s Saturday morning tweets on the subject appeared to have been sparked by news reports in right-wing media – though none of those reports alleged that former President Obama was directly involved in purported surveillance of Trump associates.
Yet on Monday morning administration aides were doubling down on Trump’s assertion. The president “firmly believes that the Obama administration may have tapped into the phones at Trump Tower,” deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on NBC’s “Today” show Monday.
Meanwhile, Democrats and some Republicans said the weekend’s events made a bipartisan probe headed by a special prosecutor more necessary than ever. Trump’s wild charges have greatly raised the stakes of the Russia issue, they said, as they allege deep illegality throughout the United States government.
Indeed, news reports Monday said FBI Director James Comey is pressing the Justice Department to publicly reject the charge that Mr. Obama ordered the tapping of Trump’s phones. Such a statement would be an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented rebuke of a sitting US president.
Given the situation, some legal analysts say that more than ever the nation needs a public airing of Russia’s attempts to meddle in US politics.
“There is now an urgent need for independent investigations – including a special prosecutor and the Justice Department’s Inspector General – to look into the underlying evidence that the FBI had of Russian connections prior to the election,” wrote Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, and coeditor Ryan Goodman on the Just Security legal blog on Sunday.
The American public appears to agree. CNN reported Monday that according to a new poll, about two-thirds of Americans want a special prosecutor to investigate the contacts between Russians and Trump campaign aides. CNN said, however, that Trump’s approval rating was virtually unchanged in the poll, rising from 44 percent in January to 45 percent.
The tweet storm that roiled US politics rolled quickly out of Trump’s Twitter feed early Saturday morning. “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump wrote, in the first of four tweets on the subject.
Trump has yet to explain the source of his education on this subject. A story from the Breitbart website alleging Department of Justice wiretapping of Trump figures, pursuant to legal proceedings, has reportedly circulated in the administration in recent days. It’s possible, even likely, that Trump was channeling his interpretation of a Thursday broadcast by conservative radio host Mark Levin.
If Trump has further inside knowledge on the allegation, he would have been revealing classified information by talking about it.
Allegation may have misfired
Under the law, US presidents can’t order wiretaps of Americans in a national security investigation. Such taps are requested by federal law enforcement and approved by a court whose proceedings are secret.
That’s why an Obama spokesman replied to Trump’s charges by saying they are “simply false.”
“Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen,” said Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis.
If Obama did in fact order Trump’s phones tapped, it would be a scandal as big as Watergate. But if a federal court approved surveillance of a Trump associate – as the Breitbart story alleges – that would be pursuant to probable cause that illegal contact was occurring.
The upshot of this is that Trump’s allegations may have the opposite effect of his possible intent. If he wanted it to distract attention from his own Russia problem, by turning a light on his predecessor, he may find that light shown on his campaign if the surveillance warrant, and its charges, become public.
“Talk about walking yourself into a box canyon,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D) of Connecticut, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, making this point during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Monday.
Few, if any, Republican lawmakers defended Trump’s full charges against Obama. They avoided comment or said they had seen no evidence of such wiretapping. “I’ve never heard that before,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, in a typical response.
But some right-leaning commentators, without endorsing Trump’s claims, expressed frustration that the alleged connection between the Trump campaign and Russia has been leaked in a partisan manner and used to try and hobble the new Trump administration.
They point out that intelligence community leaks are likely behind such stories as the Washington Post’s report of last week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had twice met with the Russian ambassador, contrary to his Senate confirmation testimony.
Frustration with the 'Deep State'
The collection of information regarding the alleged Trump-Russia connection hasn’t been political. But the dispersion of this information does seem partisan, noted Jay Cost, an analyst at the right-leaning Weekly Standard, in his own weekend tweet storm.
“And BTW that does not finger Obama at all! It could just be bureaucrats in the intel services who hate Trump and wanna get him,” tweeted Cost.
Indeed, frustration with what some analysts refer to ominously as the “Deep State” of bureaucrats and other officials resistant to Trump may lie behind the president’s angry outbursts. The problem is that those expressions of anger may make the political divisions in the country worse.
Trump’s supporters will rally behind his allegations. His committed opponents will feel themselves confirmed in their belief that his temperament makes him unfit for the Oval Office.
Given that, how might the White House rally the nation in a crisis, particularly one based in foreign events?
“I can only imagine what this is going to look like when we actually start to get pressure – events start to happen that do require that sober, methodical response,” former CIA director Michael Hayden said on NBC Monday morning.