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Revisiting Trump’s Wiretap Tweets

CNN’s report that federal investigators “wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort” has prompted some readers to ask why we don’t “correct” our March 6 article “Examining Trump’s Wiretap Claim.” Simply put, there is nothing to correct at this time.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In four tweets on March 4, President Donald Trump alleged “President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” Trump called this a “fact,” and compared the alleged wiretapping to the criminal acts of “Nixon/Watergate.”

Here are Trump’s tweets:

In his tweets, the president leveled specific and serious allegations about Obama, accusing the former president of criminal wrongdoing. His allegations were roundly rebutted by people in a position to know, including then-FBI Director James Comey.

In an update to our March 6 story, we noted that Comey on March 20 told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the Department of Justice and the FBI had no information to support Trump’s tweets that the Obama administration wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower. The committee is among those — including special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III — investigating Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump’s campaign associates were aware and involved in Russia’s efforts. (See “Timeline of Russia Investigation” for details of the various investigations.)

“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said. “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”

This month, the Department of Justice repeated that statement in a court filing.

A watchdog group called American Oversight filed suit against the Department of Justice in April, seeking to obtain any documents related to the alleged wiretaps as described in Trump’s March 4 tweets. On Sept. 1, the Justice Department filed a summary motion seeking to have the suit dismissed, saying the FBI and the National Security Division confirmed they had no record that would support Trump’s tweets.

“Both FBI and NSD confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets,” the Justice Department motion said. “FBI again confirmed that they do not have any such records by consulting with personnel knowledgeable about Director Comey’s statements and the surveillance activities of the FBI.”

Less than three weeks later, CNN reported on Sept. 19 that federal investigators “wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election,” citing unnamed sources. Some have cited the CNN story as evidence that Trump was right. It isn’t.

The CNN story does not support the president’s tweets for the same reasons that we outlined in another story we published on March 23, “Still No Evidence, Mr. President,” when the president last claimed he had been vindicated.

At that time, the president said “new information” obtained by Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, “means I’m right.” (It was later reported by the New York Times that the White House provided Nunes with this new information.) During a March 22 interview with Time magazine, the president paraphrased passages of a Politico story that appeared on its website that day. Trump said, “Members of the Donald Trump Transition team possibly including Trump himself were under [inadvertent] surveillance during the Obama administration following November’s election. House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes told reporters, wow. Nunes said, so that means I’m right.”

Trump left out the word “inadvertent,” which we inserted above in brackets. That’s important, because Nunes said he reviewed “intelligence reports” that showed “incidental collection” on some unnamed Trump transition team members after the election in November, December and January. Nunes said he believed the incidental collection of information was legally obtained.

Here’s why Nunes’ “new evidence” in March and CNN’s story in September do not support the president’s tweets:

There is still no evidence that Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump or Trump Tower. Trump misrepresented the process in his tweets. Under the law, the Justice Department and FBI submit a request to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, which authorizes the wiretapping. Obama would have no role in requesting or approving a wiretap. The CNN story said that the Justice Department and FBI obtained a FISA court order to conduct surveillance of Manafort – not Trump. And there’s no evidence that even Manafort was wiretapped while at Trump Tower. The CNN story said, “While Manafort has a residence in Trump Tower, it’s unclear whether FBI surveillance of him took place there.”

There is no evidence that any of Trump’s conversations were picked up by the FBI, but if they were that would have been “incidental collection” of information. Nunes said in March that he reviewed “intelligence reports” that show “incidental collection” on some unnamed Trump transition team members. Nunes said he did not know if any of Trump’s conversations were picked up during surveillance. The CNN story also said, “It’s unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance.”

Incidental collection of information is legal with a FISA court order. Trump claimed that Obama was responsible for illegal Watergate-style wiretapping, but CNN wrote that the FISA court authorized the wiretapping of Manafort. That would make the incidental collection of information on Trump, or anyone else, perfectly legal. Nunes made the same point in March.

We don’t know exactly when the alleged wiretapping of Manafort occurred. The CNN story said there were two instances when the FBI obtained a FISA warrant. The first was in 2014, before Manafort joined the Trump campaign. But CNN said that “it is unclear when the new warrant started.” Did it occur while Manafort was a member of the Trump campaign team? Did it occur during “the very sacred election process,” as Trump tweeted? We don’t know.

There is still much that we don’t know about the ongoing federal investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign. It may be that Manafort — as CNN reported — was the target of a court-ordered wiretap. It may even turn out that Trump was inadvertently picked up if he spoke to Manafort when the court order was in place.

But there is no evidence to support Trump’s tweets accusing Obama of illegally wiretapping his phones. That was the case in March, and it remains so. However, we will continue to monitor developments and provide updates when necessary.