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President Trump has a long history of consorting with conspiracy theorists, including Alex Jones and Roger Stone. He has expressed paranoid speculation about global warming, foreign business competition and the American electoral system. That attitude has infected his administration, where, according to a report in the New York Times, “White House officials privately express fear that colleagues may be wearing a wire to surreptitiously record conversations for [special counsel Robert] Mueller” — an unprecedented level of suspicion at the upper echelons of an American presidency.
Are those fears justified? How did we get to this point?
Michael D’Antonio, the author of Trump biographies “Never Enough” and “The Truth About Trump,” said the president has confessed to being a little paranoid and suggested this can help someone succeed in business.
“I think Trump is temperamentally inclined toward conspiracy theories and, at the same time, disinclined to do the work of studying matters fully,” D’Antonio told Yahoo News. “It takes a flexible, curious mind to seek out competing ideas and weigh them. Then it takes even more rigor to fashion a complex solution to a vexing problem. It’s much easier to listen to one or two voices who affirm your preconceptions and dismiss all others because they are somehow against you.”
According to D’Antonio, paranoia is an easy way out for someone like Trump, who is so upset by the prospect of being wrong that he almost never admits that he is.
“This frame of mind allows him to cling to the belief that anyone who criticizes him is out to get him and that their observations are attacks which must be met with a force that is, in his words, ‘10 times’ greater. Paranoia justifies obliterating opponents because they don’t just disagree, they are out to get you,” he said.
On Sunday, the New York Times published an in-depth article about the hostility and clashes between Donald F. McGahn, the White House counsel and assistant to the president, and Ty Cobb, a lawyer tasked with running the Trump camp’s response to the federal investigation into Russian meddling. A particularly revealing passage states that White House staffers fear their colleagues may be wearing a wire to help Mueller:
Tension between the two comes as life in the White House is shadowed by the investigation. Not only do Mr. Trump, Mr. Kushner and Mr. McGahn all have lawyers, but so do other senior officials. The uncertainty has grown to the point that White House officials privately express fear that colleagues may be wearing a wire to surreptitiously record conversations for Mr. Mueller.
There is no outside evidence to support those fears, but it would be a remarkable development, almost certainly unprecedented, if investigators were recruiting White House staffers to secretly record other members of the administration.
To be sure, historians and White House experts say it’s unlikely law enforcement and intelligence agencies have resorted to this tactic, now or in the past.
“As far as someone wearing a wire from the special prosecutor, I don’t know of that ever happening before. And certainly if it happened during the Watergate investigation, it never became public,” Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent and professor of journalism at American University, said.
Benedetto suggested the White House staff must feel an awful lot of pressure from the Mueller investigation and the media right now.
“There’s a Mueller story in the press almost every single day — many times more than one,” he said. “That causes a lot of people to not only soul-search but look over their shoulders.”
Matthew Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University and a Yahoo News contributor, said it is not surprising that staffers would worry someone is wearing a wire given the White House’s chaotic response to the Mueller probe and Trump’s own extreme defensiveness.
“He’s got these outside lawyers and White House counsel. Trump sort of breeds suspicion and paranoia in people around him — and for good reason. He intentionally attacks them in front of one another and undercuts them behind their backs,” Dallek said in a phone interview.
Dallek suggested that this fear among Trump’s aides and lawyers is a reflection of the frequent leaking to the press from people privy to sensitive meetings, as well as “the culture of paranoia that has gripped this White House and the culture of conspiracy theories that Trump has fostered.”
Behind this fear, he said, is a “very aggressive special counsel with a team of leading lawyers pursuing criminal charges on an array of issues that directly lead to the president in some cases, including obstruction of justice.”
But, he added, “In terms of evidence that people are entering the White House wearing a wire on behalf of the special counsel, there’s obviously no evidence of that. That would be unprecedented.”
Dallek told Yahoo News he doesn’t know of an instance in which a White House aide did the bidding of an investigation by wearing a wire. He said anyone who may have had a reason to cooperate with investigators, such as former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort or former national security adviser Michael Flynn, has already left Trump’s inner circle.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in the Securities and Commodities Fraud Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said fears of a staffer wearing a wire likely are the product of “the active imaginations” of administration officials, betraying the lack of trust that pervades the administration. He suggested that Trump’s management style of fostering competition for favor may contribute to this atmosphere, which he adds is counterproductive to mounting a legal defense.
“You have a team that is so disunified that you have the lawyers hiding information from each other, openly talking in public restaurants about their distrust and dislike of each other, screaming at each other,” Mariotti told Yahoo News. “When you are fighting a federal prosecution, you need to be unified and present a common, united front.”
According to Mariotti, the government wants people who are the subjects of investigations to be at odds with one another so these differences can be exploited to make them provide information. He said he would expect the president’s legal team to be more unified, with open discussion about the best path forward and tight control over what information is revealed to the outside world.
“An operation that’s more like that is Mueller’s operation,” he said. “Everybody in the outside world is trying to find out what that guy’s doing, and it’s not always easy to do.”
But for pro-Trump media, the president’s paranoia (and by extension his staffers’) is entirely justified because they see him as under siege by the political establishment and a liberal media.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza and right-wing sites like Breitbart News seized upon a new report from CNN to argue that Trump had been vindicated for claiming — without presenting evidence — that Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower.
But they are overstating the facts. On Monday evening, CNN reported that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was under FBI surveillance as a result of his consulting work for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party. At some point last year the surveillance was dropped, but resumed, under a new warrant, as investigators turned their attention to ties between Trump’s associates and suspected Russian operatives. U.S. investigators reportedly listened to Manafort’s conversations sporadically before and after the election — including when he was Trump’s campaign chairman. It was not known whether the agents picked up calls with Trump.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump said in the first of four tweets in March accusing his predecessor of malfeasance.
At the time, Trump’s accusation was widely ridiculed and dismissed, provoking a rare response from Obama through his spokesman, Kevin Lewis: “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 U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
In a court filing on Sept. 1, the Justice Department said there is no evidence to support Trump’s claim. The department’s National Security Division and the FBI confirmed that “they have no records related to wiretaps as described” by Trump.
To state the obvious, for the FBI to monitor Manafort because of his Ukrainian and Russian connections is not the same thing as Obama personally ordering a wiretap on Trump himself.
Even though there is no evidence of Trump being wiretapped, David M. Shapiro, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former FBI special agent who worked in counterintelligence against the Soviet Union, said he would not be surprised if it turns out that the real estate tycoon had been tracked by the intelligence community — but for his foreign business dealings rather than politics.
“If you’re running an intelligence operation, it’s largely based on risk assessment, like anything else in law enforcement. You don’t want to throw good money after bad adventures,” Shapiro told Yahoo News.
Shapiro said surveillance of suspected foreign agents is a high-risk activity for law enforcement, reserved for figures who are believed to be major actors. Even before he became president, Trump was a prominent businessman with investments and interests overseas.
“I don’t think Trump has been treated unfairly here,” Shapiro said. “Although — like a lot of what Trump says — there are kernels of truth to what seems like madness at times.”
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