A former Justice Department official with experience before Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, or FISA, courts says there are simple ways to determine whether President Trump is right about the government spying on him during the 2016 campaign, and she says President Obama would certainly have known about such actions by the Justice Department.
And she says it’s entirely plausible that Democratic political appointees who were later shifted to career positions in the intelligence community are working to undermine the Trump presidency.
Victoria Toensing served as deputy assistant attorney general and was also a federal prosecutor. In addition, she served as chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence while Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., was leading the committee.
The debate over whether the government conducted surveillance on the Trump campaign instantly caught fire Saturday after a series of early-morning tweets from Trump. The president ultimately compared Obama’s alleged actions to Watergate.
Later on Saturday, a spokesman for former President Obama issued a statement denying any involvement by Obama in any surveillance on Trump and his team.
“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false,” the statement read.
Like other experts, Toensing noted the very careful language in the Obama statement that doesn’t appear to rule out other in the government from authorizing such activity, namely the Justice Department.
“Sounds like a non sequitur, doesn’t it?” said Toensing. “OK, you’ve never interfered, so if the attorney general said she was going to do this and gave you notice, you just said, ‘Go ahead.’ That’s not interfering. It’s a really carefully parsed statement. He’s gotten as good as Bill Clinton,” said Toensing.
Is it certain then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch would have informed Obama when taking such action?
“Oh yeah. I can’t imagine ordering surveillance of a political opponent in a political campaign (without informing the president). Loretta Lynch has shown that she’s been incompetent in many ways, but I don’t think communicating with the president is where’s she’s incompetent,” said Toensing.
Throughout the weekend, very different narratives were presented as fact, from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper insisting that the no FISA warrant was ever issued in connection to Trump to conservatives highlighting a litany of liberal media outlets reporting on intercepts of key Trump officials for the past several weeks.
The New York Times has reported that the FISA court denied a request for a warrant back in June 2016 but approved one with a much narrower scope in October.
“What is this thing, ‘If it happened?’ There’s been reporting in the New York Times that the second time there was some computer in Trump Tower. Then, indeed, Trump was being electronically surveilled or wiretapped, depending on the technique that was used,” she said.
And Toensing says it is vital for lawmakers and reporters to consistently and repeatedly ask if wiretapping or electronic surveillance was used, since referring to one specific method could give witnesses unintended wiggle room.
Toensing fully supports the matter now going to the House and Senate intelligence committees. She says those panels, particularly on the Senate side, still enjoy a great deal of bipartisan cooperation and adds the key questions range from the existence of the FISA warrants to their scope and the length of time they were valid. She says FISA warrants are normally active for 90 days but can be extended to six months in some cases.
While FISA courts approve warrant requests in nearly all cases, Toensing says the rate is a bit misleading because the court does deny some efforts but then approves them after the government narrows the focus of the warrants.
Nonetheless, she says another good question for lawmakers to pursue is why the June request before the FISA court was rejected. And if reports of the second warrant request being granted is true, why Obama would allow such a thing to take place during the heat of a campaign.
“If it did involve Trump Tower or Trump people, I say what is a Democratic president of the United States doing even having anything to do with tapping Republican opposition during a political year? That just amazes me right there,” said Toensing.
The allegation from Trump and his allies is that partisan intelligence operatives sought to undermine his campaign and are now looking to bring down his presidency. Toensing says that argument is plausible, and point to recent events as evidence of a deep rift in intelligence circles.
“Do you remember when the Yemen raid took place and the [Navy SEAL] was killed? All of a sudden, a few days later, you saw headlines (reporting that) nothing came out of the Yemen raid. It was a loss. Then, about a week ago, I see hundreds of names were acquired during that Yemen raid,” said Toensing.
She says there are a lot of entrenched Democrats now serving in non-political positions.
“Democrats like to stay in government more than Republicans do. So Democrats tend to stay around after the political process goes. They’re given a job in what called a career position,” said Toensing.
She says one of the most controversial figures from the Obama administration is a good example of that transition.
“Lois Lerner, no better example than that,” said Toensing, referring to the former IRS official at the center of government harassment of conservative groups applying for non-profit status.
“She’s a political appointee and then they put her in career positions, where she could sit there and do all kinds of evil to opponents of President Obama,” said Toensing.
So while Toensing is unaware of any specific rogue elements of the intelligence community, she says the idea that some are working against their own president is not far-fetched.
“It would seem to me that the mechanism is there for the people to undermine President Trump. It would appear that that’s what’s happening,” said Toensing.