‘OBAMA TAPPED MY PHONES!’ When President Trump blared out this accusation in a series of tweets in March 2017, the White House cited one of my stories for the BBC as evidence. The president’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, also mentioned reports from the New York Times and Fox and one written by Louise Mensch, a former British MP. In the days that followed, the White House could produce nothing more than this handful of media reports to justify the president’s claim of a grave abuse of power by his predecessor. This was extraordinary, given that Trump now sat atop the federal government.
The attorney general, William Barr, returned to this allegation on Wednesday, telling a Senate committee that ‘spying’ on the Trump’s campaign ‘did occur’ before the election in 2016. ‘I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It’s a big deal.’ Having used such a loaded term, Barr immediately hedged: ‘The question is whether it was adequately predicated. I’m not saying it wasn’t.’ And: ‘I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it’s important to look at that.’ A former FBI agent, Asha Rangappa, tweeted this response: ‘To recap: Barr is opening an investigation into whether the FBI opened an investigation with no evidence based on no evidence that the FBI actually did anything wrong.’
Trump was specific in his original claim – saying that ‘Obama’ had ‘wire tapped’ Trump Tower. ‘This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!’ My story in early 2017 did not say that, exactly, whatever the White House press office might have wished. It did say that secret warrants – so-called FISA warrants – were granted to tap two Russian banks, as a way to get evidence on three of Trump’s associates. Ultimately, one of my sources said, Trump was the target of the investigation. It may be a long time before we know if any of that is true, perhaps not until all the records are declassified and the full history of the Trump-Russia ‘scandal’ is written. But if something like this did happen, the president’s tweets might, like a fairground mirror, give a distorted but still recognizable picture of reality: the Trump campaign caught up in the surveillance of foreign entities; this on President Obama’s watch, if not on his orders.
As the attorney general says, if the Trump campaign was being ‘spied’ on, it’s really a question of why. Sources in ‘the intelligence community’ say there had to be an investigation because it looked like the Russians were trying to penetrate the Trump campaign – but when he was warned about this, he reacted with fury rather than gratitude. The president says Clinton loyalists in the ‘Deep State’ were trying to get dirt on him. On Wednesday, he said – as he’s said before – that the FBI inquiry before and after the election was an ‘illegal witch hunt,’ ‘crooked,’ a ‘scam,’ and ‘treason’. ‘This was an attempted coup. This was an attempted take-down of a president.’ Interestingly, Barr seemed to hint that he has evidence to support the president – though he would not say what it was. Talking about ‘unauthorized surveillance,’ he said: ‘I believe there is a basis for my concern, but I’m not going to discuss the basis for my concern.’
Barr’s pronouncements — like the Oracle of Delphi’s — are opaque. He might have been speaking about how the FBI got its FISA warrants. The president’s supporters believe that the FBI was given at least one after telling a judge about intelligence from a source who happened to be Christopher Steele. This was, supposedly, the surveillance warrant for Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. A Republican senator, Robert Aderholt, asked Barr ‘how it came to be that your agency used a salacious and unverified dossier as a predicate for a FISA order on a US citizen?’. But there was other evidence about Page, including past contact with Russian spies (who reportedly thought he was too much of an ‘idiot’ to recruit). It has yet to be shown that Steele’s information was the reason that any FISA warrant was granted. I was given pages from the dossier in October 2016 – two weeks out from the election – precisely because of worries that the FBI were not taking it seriously. Eventually, Steele had to ask Sen. John McCain to get the FBI director to look at what he’d found.
Steele is already the subject of what the New York Times called the ‘first known Congressional criminal referral’ connected to Russia’s attack on the US election. In January, two senior Republican senators, Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham, wrote to the DoJ to say they thought he may have lied to the FBI about his contacts with reporters – a claim I’m told that Steele adamantly denies. As the Times said, so far no one has been referred to the DoJ by Congress for attacking the election — just Steele, who sought to expose the assault. Barr’s inquiry about ‘the origins of the counterintelligence investigation’ into the Trump campaign is bad news for Steele. The president and his allies are eager for a ‘reckoning’ and he is on their ‘enemies list’.