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WASHINGTON — President Trump made headlines on Saturday after he sent a series of explosive tweets claiming that the phones in his Manhattan skyscraper were tapped by former President Barack Obama during last year’s campaign. On Sunday, the White House released a statement calling for congressional intelligence committees to investigate the charge as part of probes into alleged Russian interference in the election. The statement also said that Trump and his staff would not comment further until a congressional investigation was “conducted.”
Despite that effort to put an end to the discussion, the White House has been peppered this week by reporters asking whether Trump had proof for his explosive claim that “President Obama was tapping my phones.” At his daily briefings on Monday and Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly declined to answer questions about the president’s claim and said a congressional investigation was the “appropriate place” to deal with the matter. While the White House is keeping quiet about the issue, one senior administration official agreed to explain some of the thinking behind the president’s tweets and his wiretapping “concerns” to Yahoo News.
“At some level, somebody clearly did violate the law,” said the official, who only agreed to talk anonymously.
The official who spoke to Yahoo News did not offer any specific evidence in support of Trump’s assertion that the phones in Trump Tower — which housed both Trump’s apartment and the headquarters of his campaign and transition operations — were tapped on Obama’s orders. But the official said the president was still troubled by the existence of, and leaks about, transcripts of phone conversations between Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Though the transcripts have not been made public, anonymous officials described those documents and conversations to the New York Times last month. During the transition before Trump’s inauguration, Flynn talked with Kislyak about U.S. sanctions that had been leveled against Moscow after intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in last year’s election. Flynn had told multiple senior administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, that he had not discussed the sanctions with Kislyak, and the revelation that he had not been truthful about his communications with the ambassador led Trump to demand Flynn’s resignation President Donald J. Trump waves as he walks across the South Lawn toward the White House, March 5, 2017. (Photo: Erik S. Lesser-Pool/Getty Images)[/caption]
The White House official said the fact that Flynn was recorded indicates there was likely a warrant issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, a secretive body that considers monitoring requests from U.S. intelligence agencies.
“In order for Flynn’s name to come up, you have to assume there was a FISA warrant or surveillance,” the official said.
U.S. intelligence agencies regularly monitor foreign diplomats in the country. The existence of transcripts of Flynn’s calls with Kislyak would not be proof that Trump’s adviser was the primary target of any surveillance. It would have been possible for officials to have heard Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador if they were monitoring Kislyak. The official who spoke to Yahoo News acknowledged this but said the question of how Flynn was recorded is just “one of the things” bothering Trump. According to the official, the White House is also concerned about the fact that Flynn’s name was included in the surveillance and leaked to the press.
“You have to ask yourself, how did that happen?” the official said. FISA allows intelligence agencies to target “non-US persons.” Communications involving American citizens like Flynn that are obtained during FISA surveillance must be destroyed unless they are found to contain “significant foreign intelligence information,” “evidence of a crime,” or “information pertaining to a threat of serious harm to life or property.”
The names of U.S. persons involved in communications monitored and preserved through FISA are generally supposed to be anonymized except under specific conditions. The details of FISA investigations are highly classified, and, the official noted, the fact that Flynn’s conversations were made public clearly constituted an “illegal” leak, which the official said was another one of Trump’s “concerns.”
“It is illegal for a U.S. citizen’s name to be released,” said the official.
Kevin Lewis, a spokesperson for President Obama, released a statement on Saturday that said, “Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen” and “Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.” While Obama’s office insisted that the former president and his team did not order wiretaps on Trump’s camp, the statement left open the possibility that other government officials launched the surveillance. On Sunday, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said he could “deny” that there was any FISA order for surveillance on Trump’s team during the election or presidential transition. However, Clapper noted that he couldn’t “speak for other authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity.”
But Trump’s tweets directly blamed Obama for alleged wiretapping.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump wrote in one of his messages.
“I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” he said in another.
Yahoo News asked the White House official whether it was possible that Trump was speaking figuratively and simply meant that surveillance was conducted by officials during Obama’s tenure without the president being personally involved. The official suggested Trump believes that members of Obama’s administration must have played a role in any surveillance on his advisers or the leaking of details from intercepted communications involving his team.
“There are lots of people in that world who’ve suggested that you could not do something of that magnitude without someone in the White House knowing about it,” the official said.
The official also said that part of Trump’s “frustration” is what the White House sees as a “double standard” where direct proof is not necessarily required for allegations against the president, but he is expected to present evidence if he levels a charge.
“People make accusations about him and what he’s done,” the official said with clear exasperation, adding, “And then the president says something and it’s, ‘Show me your proof.’ There’s obviously a considerable double standard.”