Early on Saturday morning, Donald Trump dropped a bombshell. Even by his own warped yardstick it was an extraordinary claim.
In three Tweets he accused his predecessor, Barack Obama, of tapping his phones during last year’s presidential election.
Then, without offering any evidence for the incendiary claims, he moved on to give his thoughts on Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving the Apprentice (“pathetic ratings”) before leaving for a morning at the Trump International Golf Course in Florida.
Where did the claims come from?
The wiretap claims have been circulating since the eve of the election. Louise Mensch, the former Conservative MP, reported on Heat Street that a special intelligence court had issued a warrant to investigate possible contacts between Russian banks and the Trump campaign. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) warrant included the ability to investigate American individuals, she reported, which some took to include Mr Trump and his close circle.
The investigation focused on a Trump computer server and whether it was communicating with two Russian banks. Mrs Mensch claimed her sources said the warrant allowed examination of the “full content of emails and other related documents that may concern US persons”.
Can a president order a wire tap?
Fisa warrants are designed to apply to non-US citizens. However, they can encompass Americans in very limited circumstances. But legal experts say they could almost certainly not be used to order phone taps if Trump Tower itself were the target.
Instead it would most likely have needed the Department of Justice to seek warrants from a federal judge.
And none of the initial reports – by Mrs Mensch or a subsequent account by the BBC – refers to phone taps.
So why bring them up now?
The issue was reheated by Mark Levin, a conservative radio host with a neat line in rhetoric, on his Thursday evening show. His theme was what he called the “silent coup” launched by Mr Obama’s White House to hand power to Hillary Clinton. And the then president tried to do it using government security apparatus, he claimed.
His words were picked up by Breitbart, the Rightwing website once run by Steve Bannon (now chief strategist to the president), in an article reportedly circulated around the White House and which referred to wiretaps.
Aides told The New York Times they believed Mr Trump’s tweets were sparked by the Breitbart article.
What does Barack Obama say?
His spokesman offered a pretty substantial denial within hours of Mr Trump’s tweets, saying Mr Obama stayed well out of the way of any investigations.
Kevin Lewis, his spokesman, said: “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 US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false."
What do Mr Obama’s intelligence chiefs say?
So far we have heard from James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, who also denied any such thing, pointing out that presidents simply cannot unilaterally order phone lines to be tapped. Asked on Sunday morning TV whether the FBI had obtained a Fisa court orfer, he said: “For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign.”
Where does all this leave us?
Chasing our tails once again.
After Mr Trump won plaudits for his presidential tone during a speech to Congress on Tuesday, he was beset by fresh concerns about his campaigns links to Moscow after it emerged Jeff Sessions, his attorney general, appeared to mislead a Senate committee over two meetings with the Russian ambassador.
Could Mr Trump’s tweets have been designed to shift the news agenda away from those awkward questions on to the conduct of Mr Obama’s administration?
Either way, it still leaves Mr Trump’s Russian problem in the headlines.