Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America applaud Meghan McCain for calling out Michael Wolff’s many factual errors and questionable journalistic ethics to his face during a discussion of his book on “The View.” They also unload on Republican Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens for conducting an extramarital affair as he prepared to launch his bid for governor and they recoil at accusations that he threatened to release compromising photos of the woman if she revealed their affair. Greitens admits to the affair but strongly denies the blackmail. And they smack their foreheads as President Trump trashes FISA renewal legislation in a tweet before realizing his administration actually supports the bill.
After months of current and former federal officials insisting there was no merit to allegations the government conducted surveillance on Donald Trump or his campaign during the 2016 cycle, there are now reports that former campaign manager Paul Manafort was being wiretapped.
After Trump tweeted his frustration at the Obama administration for greenlighting the alleged wiretapping, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper rejected and validity to such an assertion.
“For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect as a candidate or against his campaign,” said Clapper on NBC’s “Meet the Press” back in March.
But CNN’s revelation that the government did procure a FISA warrant against Manafort and conduct surveillance in on him in 2016 and 2017 brings such denials under the spotlight once again. Most importantly, did they lie?
Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy says the way Clapper and others carefully worded their denials earlier this year probably leaves them some wiggle room.
“I always thought that the denials, as indignant as they were by people connected to the Obama administration and even from the Justice Department after Trump took it over were always carefully couched and very narrow,” said McCarthy.
“What I took the denials to mean was that they were saying they never targeted Trump himself for surveillance and even more specifically that Obama did not do it,” said McCarthy.
“I always thought that was quite narrow because as we know, the president does not go to the FISA court and get the authorization to do these surveillances, much less do the physical work to set up the surveillance himself,” said McCarthy.
“I always thought that the loudness and indignation of the denials was much broader than what the denials actually said read carefully,” he added.
According to CNN’s reporting, Manafort was under surveillance from 2014 to early 2016 and again from late 2016 to sometime earlier this year, including time when Trump was president. At issue, according to sources, was Manafort’s cozy relationship with the ousted pro-Putin regime of Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine, and ultimately whether he was tapping those connections to aid Trump’s campaign in any way.
Still, the government’s pursuit of a FISA warrant is much different than a standard criminal search warrant.
“You have to show there’s probable cause that the subject is an agent of a foreign power. That’s importantly different from a criminal warrant. In a criminal case, you have to show that there’s probable cause that a crime has been or is being committed and that evidence of a crime is likely to be recovered in the place that you want to search,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy says the political circumstances surrounding the case should not impact the enforcement of the law but he says there is usually great sensitivity exercised when political events could be impacted. As a result this decision, should have been deliberated at the highest levels of government.
“That gets scrutinized, not only much more carefully at the FISA court, (but) it also should be scrutinized very heavily in the Justice Department, the FBI, and the upper ranks of the administration before you would even go to the FISA court to seek the surveillance,” said McCarthy.
The New York Times is reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller is using “shock and awe” tactics, meaning he is threatening witnesses with considerable punishment for not cooperating fully with the Mueller team.
McCarthy says we already saw that when the FBI conducted a pre-dawn raid of Manafort’s Virginia home in July. He points out that any raid conducted before 6 a.m. and allowing agents to pick the locks at a home require special permission from the court.
But perhaps the most curious part of the FBI’s physical raid on Manafort’s home was the timing of it.
“The search warrant that Mueller did came on the day after Manafort met with Senate Intelligence Committee investigators and on the very day he was supposed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy suspects there could be multiple motives at work. One is simply that investigators are eager to determine exactly how much Russia did to influence the 2016 elections, which he believes is warranted.
However, in a politically charged atmosphere like Washington, he says some could be trying to make whatever evidence is in hand fit a political goal.
“I think there are other people looking to cement a political narrative that it was Trump collusion and Russian espionage that cost Hillary Clinton the election. There’s all kinds of factors and considerations that go into it. But certainly Manafort and his prior connection to this Ukrainian faction gives a lot of ammunition to the investigators,” said McCarthy.
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.