Fact check: what did Trump's tweets about Obama's 'wiretaps' mean?

Alan Yuhas
Donald Trump leaves the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Friday. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

On Saturday morning, without presenting evidence, Donald Trump accused former president Barack Obama of illegal wiretapping. Using Twitter, the president also mounted a defense of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and his meetings with the Russian ambassador.

The six tweets appeared to originate with rumors circulating in rightwing media, especially talk radio and Breitbart News – recently run by Steve Bannon, now the president’s chief strategist – about a “silent coup” against Trump, by members of the Obama administration.

Tweet #1

Sessions met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in July 2016, at an event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The event was co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and Global Cleveland, in coordination with the RNC and the Department of State.

The state department has invited ambassadors to both party conventions for decades, as an educational program. Several dozen ambassadors from around the world attended the Republican convention this year, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

According to a justice department official speaking anonymously to the Washington Post when it first reported the story, the meeting was casual: Kislyak and other ambassadors approached Sessions after he finished giving a speech. Sessions then spoke with Kislyak alone, the official said, citing a former staffer for the senator. To say the meeting was “set up by the Obama administration” is false.

Nor was the second meeting, held on 8 September in Sessions’ office, arranged by the state department. Justice department officials have said Sessions met Kislyak given the senator’s role on the armed services committee, but 20 of 26 members of that panel have said they did not meet with the ambassador in 2016.

Where did the claim come from? On Friday, Breitbart News published an article claiming that the state department “sponsored” the July meeting.

Tweet #2

Presidents cannot legally order a wire tap operation unilaterally: federal agents and attorneys would have had to convince a federal judge either of probable cause of a serious crime or that the target of the tap was the agent of a foreign power.

However, the former British MP Louise Mensch reported in November that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) court had granted the FBI a surveillance warrant of “US persons” to investigate possible contacts between Russian banks and Trump’s associates. In January, the BBC reported that the Fisa court had issued its warrant in October.

Also in January, the Guardian reported that the Fisa court had turned down an initial request for a warrant, and that the judge had asked investigators to narrow the terms of their search.

On Saturday, Obama denied through a spokesman that he or the White House had any role ordering a wire tap.

“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with an independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” said spokesman Kevin Lewis. “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.”

The spokesperson did not deny that intelligence officials had requested or employed surveillance of Trump associates.

Though leaks from the intelligence community have shown that Trump associates, including former campaign chief Paul Manafort, former adviser Carter Page and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, are included in an investigation into Kremlin activities, it remains unclear what direct evidence of wrongdoing, if any, the agencies have gathered.

It is not unusual for high-level campaign officials to meet ambassadors, but those meetings are typically with representatives of US allies, like Britain and France, and not with those of rivals such as Russia. So far, denials have proven more damning to Trump officials than the content of their conversations: Flynn was caught having misled the vice-president about his contacts with Kislyak and Sessions testified under oath that he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the campaign.

Tweet #3

Only ambassadors from nations with the most acrimonious relations with the US – or no relations at all – do not visit the White House. Even the cold war did not deter Russian ambassadors from visiting it; Cuba sent its first ambassador in decades in 2015.

This information is not “just out” – over its eight years the Obama White House reported most of its visitors to the public, a practice so far discontinued by the Trump White House. On Friday, Breitbart reported that Kislyak visited the White House 22 times in seven years, citing a Dally Caller story that used the old logs.

Tweet #4

It would not be legal for a sitting president to unilaterally order surveillance; a federal court would have to approve the surveillance. Trump seems to acknowledge this in an oblique way, with an allusion to the report that the Fisa court at first turned down an initial request for a warrant.

Though Trump claimed he “just found out” about reported surveillance, he is privy to intelligence briefings in which officials would have informed him about such operations. Both Obama and Trump received these briefings during the transition, for instance, reportedly, about an unsubstantiated dossier regarding links between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

Tweet #5

Trump presents baseless rumor as fact here, saying Obama “was tapping my phones in October” without providing any evidence of the former president’s agency in the investigation or of the surveillance itself. The Obama administration did not formally accuse Russia of interfering in the election until early October 2016.

Tweet #6

Again, Trump presents a claim without evidence, this time as condemnation. As he earlier compared the overall Russia investigation to “McCarthyism” – the 1950s anti-communist crusade by Senator Joe McCarthy, who often resorted to baseless claims – Trump now invokes the Watergate scandal, in which President Richard Nixon’s White House spied on his political opponents.

Unlike that scandal, however, which involved illegal break-ins, intimidation and surveillance by people with links to the White House, the current investigations are being handled by federal courts and intelligence agencies that fall under the authority of the attorney general. On Thursday, Sessions recused himself.

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