Following reports that Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman was under surveillance, Fox News pundits jumped to the president’s defense Tuesday, asserting that his claims the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower have now been vindicated. Yet they couldn’t be more wrong, said legal experts.
It all goes back to Trump’s tweet on March 4 that he “found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump also compared it to “Nixon/Watergate,” when President Richard Nixon attempted to bug the Democratic Party headquarters.
Defending Trump’s months-old claim, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson said Tuesday: “Not everything the president says on Twitter is factually accurate. But to anyone who has been in Washington for a while, that claim didn't seem crazy or really that unlikely.”
Carlson said CNN’s report that Paul Manafort—who was chairman of Trump’s 2016 election campaign between last June and August—had been under FBI surveillance since 2014 prove that “all those patronizing assurances that nobody is spying on political campaigns were false and probably intentionally so.”
In early September, a Department of Justice court filing confirmed neither the department nor the FBI have any records of wiretaps that would support Trump’s claim. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and the top senators on the intelligence committee, Richard Burr and Mark Warner, have also dismissed Trump’s claim.
Carlson accused them all of “colluding with one another to lie to the public, apparently for political reasons.”
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Since his inauguration, Trump has been defending himself against accusations that his campaign associates assisted the Kremlin in its efforts to interfere in the 2016 election in his favor.
CNN reported Tuesday that two Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants were issued for Manafort for different time periods. The first, launched years before Manafort joined Trump’s campaign, probed work he did for Ukraine's former Kremlin-tied leadership. The second was part of the FBI's investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence agents.
To get a FISA warrant, officials would need to convince specialist federal judges that Manafort was knowingly working as an agent of a foreign power to carry out clandestine intelligence activities in the U.S., according to Bradley P. Moss, a partner at a Washington, D.C. law firm focusing on government transparency.
Surveillance under the second warrant reportedly picked up conversations between Manafort and Trump after the president took office.
A Manafort spokesman responded to the report by calling for an investigation of the Obama administration, in order to find the motivations behind the “previous administration’s effort to surveil a political opponent.”
“Manafort, it should be noted, had an apartment in Trump Tower during that time,” Carlson pointed out Tuesday. “So it’s virtually certain that surveillance of him would have included other members of the Trump campaign staff, maybe even Trump himself. In other words, it looks like Trump’s tweet may have been right.”
Fox News pundit Sean Hannity argued during his show Tuesday that Trump “has been proven right about wiretapping” and accused the media of dismissing Trump’s claim.
Legal experts, however, say that the disclosures about Manafort and that Trump was picked up during surveillance don’t make true the president’s claims he was wiretapped by President Barack Obama.
“Two things can be true at once: 1) Trump lied. 2) He was picked up on surveillance of suspected foreign agents or criminals,” tweeted the watchdog group American Oversight, headed by a team of legal experts. The group’s executive director, Austin Evers, recently served in the Department of State as senior counsel for oversight and transparency.
“If Trump was talking with foreign agents who were under FBI surveillance, he may have been recorded even if not the tap target,” the nonprofit group wrote. “Trying to downplay Trump’s lie by showing he associated with suspected criminals hardly seems like a robust defense of his honesty.”
The alleged existence of “FISA warrants targeting Manafort still have nothing to do with what the president talked about in his March 4th Twitter rant,” Moss wrote in a legal analysis challenging the Fox News pundits’ claims that Trump has been vindicated on his accusation against Obama.
At the very least, the surveillance shows “Manafort was the subject of lawful surveillance, and it certainly is plausible that his communications with the president were caught up incidentally in that surveillance,” Moss wrote.
But this is a “rather far cry from the president’s hyperbolic claims from March and his references to Nixon and Watergate,” he wrote.
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