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Wednesday
Mar082017

Trump's Tweets and Our Nonsensical Media

The American media, mainstream and otherwise, is filled with a lot of deliberate nonsense. The flap about Donald Trump’s tweetstorm, in which he accused former President Barack Obama of ordering wiretapping of his phones, is a prime example. On March 4, Trump tweeted,  “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” then,  “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!” followed by, "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

 

The text of President Trump’s tweets indicates that he directly accused former President Obama of tapping his telephones. The phrase “Obama had my wires tapped” clearly means that the former president was instrumental (whatever actual chain of communication is followed in the White House to put such things in motion) in requesting the alleged wiretaps, to which President Trump is referring. Now matter how many times Trump apologists say that “of course he didn’t mean that Obama ordered the wiretaps” or “he just means that reports of these things deserve investigation,” or some such comments, the truth is that President Trump has made a direct accusation against former President Obama with regard to wiretapping his telephone.

 

Not only have Trump defenders, such as Sean Spicer, attempted to downplay the direct accusations in the president’s tweets, e.g. Spicer’s statement that, “I think that there’s no question that something happened. The question is, is it surveillance, is it a wiretap or whatever. But there’s been enough reporting that strongly suggests that something occurred,” or Kellyanne Conway’s statement, that there was “politically motivated activity all during the campaign,” but others, such as Sean Hannity and Newt Gringrich have offered “proof” by citing the fact that telephone conversations between the Russian Ambassador and Trump’s prospective National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn contained wiretapped information from Flynn. Their argument is that Flynn’s phone must have been tapped, or at the least, the FBI or whoever tapped the Russian Ambassador either obtained a FISA warrant to examine and transcribe Flynn’s end of the conversation or did so illegally. Hannity and Gingrich have a point with regard to the last issue. FISA warrants covering foreign suspects do not allow transcription of American citizens’ end of the conversation (although how one would listen to only one end of the conversation seems puzzling). But their argument misses the whole point with regard to Trump’s tweets. First of all, recording of a conversation on a tapped Russian Ambassador’s telephone would not require also tapping Flynn’s telephone and second, the whole issue of how the FBI obtained Flynn’s conversation has nothing to do with Trump’s assertion that Obama instructed someone to tap his telephone. The Flynn issue is a distractor, not so-called “proof” that Trump’s accusations are true.

 

The liberal media has not been faultless in this controversy. Stating that Trump’s twitter assertions are “unsubstantiated” may be correct, given that no direct evidence has been produced supporting their truth, thus far. However, claiming that the accusations in the tweets are “false” is just as unsubstantiated, since no evidence has been presented that no FISA warrants were issued or that no wiretapping occurred. The day after the tweets were made, CNN headlines screamed “Trump’s Baseless Wiretap Claim.” The article described the tweets as “unsubstantiated claims bellowed off the cuff.” While CNN and the New York Times have been eager to link President Trump’s source for his allegations to a Breitbart article of the day before, reporting on conservative talk show host Mark Levin’s on-air rant about efforts of the former Obama administration to undermine the Trump presidency, including using electronic surveillance and have been quick to assert that the new president appears to be getting his information from online alt-right sources, they have mostly failed to mention the New York Times article of January 20, which is at the heart of much of the conservative defense of Trump’s allegations. That article, headlined, “Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides” detailed federal law enforcement actions that involved “intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump,” according to “former senior American officials.” The same article went on to say, “One official said intelligence reports based on some of the wiretapped communications had been provided to the White House.” Although the same article included the statement, “It is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Mr. Trump’s campaign, or Mr. Trump himself,” it at least gave substance to the suggestion that President’s Trump’s associates, including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, might be both under investigation and the subject of federal wiretaps. This is important information that should not be omitted from media stories that deal with where President Trump might have gotten his information and this information contradicts the assertion that the accusations in his tweets came out of nowhere. On the other hand, just as with the issue regarding General Flynn’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador, the Times story provides no evidence that Obama directed wiretaps of Trump’s telephone, which is what the tweets actually said.

 

Presumably there is a record of FISA court warrants or requests for warrants and of actual wiretaps carried out by federal law enforcement. While such records may be classified, they are available to the president, who can declassify them or simply look at them in their classified state. In other words, there is an answer to the question of whether what President Donald Trump asserted on Saturday morning, March 4, is true. Given the tendency for the media to spin the news either toward the left or toward the right, I am pessimistic about media reports ever providing a straight answer about the truth of Trump’s accusations, despite the truth being a fairly simple thing in this case. I suspect that we will be told from the left that the fact is that no federally ordered surveillance of Donald Trump’s telephone was ordered by former president Obama and none took place. That report will be countered by the claim from the right that surveillance of Trump’s associates, some of them having been part of his campaign, did take place and was reported to the Obama White House. Both sides will claim that their information proves that they are right: from the left—that Trump’s tweets were false, and from the right—that Trump’s tweets were correct.

 

It will be important for all of us, as consumers of information, to see through the spin and arrive at a conclusion for ourselves, although at the rate that news is developing these days, by the time the information is available, most of us may no longer care.

 

Reader Comments (2)

Well done, Casey. You make a very important point: unsubstantiated does not equal false. Trump's claims may one day be substantiated. Or not.

I have a couple of bones to pick. First, a FISA court order is not the only way to obtain a wiretap. A non-FISA court can issue a warrant if probable cause can be shown of criminal activity.

Second, the president cannot direct the Justice Department or the FBI to seek a wiretap. By rules that came about after Watergate, the Justice Department is independent of the executive branch.

Third, I question your statement that wiretaps under a FISA order cannot transcribe the other end of the conversation if the "other end" is a U.S. citizen. (At least I think that's what you said.) Can you cite your references for that assertion?

I agree with you that depending on which cable news outlet you watch, very different views of the universe are presented. CNN and MSNBC are reporting on a different planet than Fox. You point that out very clearly, Casey, along with the admonition to see through the spin.

March 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Spooner

Chuck: Good points. I did not include information about domestic criminal court approved wiretap because a) that would have unnecessrily (in my mind) complicated the narrative and b) the reports suggesting that a court may have been approached to request a wiretap, at least those reported in the NYT, Guardian and BBC all mentioned a FISA, rather than a criminal court. The reference to not transcribing the converssation of General Flynn if the Russian Ambassador was the target of a FISA approved wiretap is known as the FISA "minimization procedure," which requires redaction of the name of the U.S. citizen whose conversation is recorded but was not the subject of the FISA approved wiretap (Unless an imminent crime is involved that requires that name be divulged). The reference is in an NSA document (https://www.nsa.gov/about/civil-liberties/reports/assets/files/UFA_SMPs_Nov_2015.pdf), although I read about in a newspaper article, but can't remember which one. You are right, that watching, for instance, CNN and FOX (particularly Hannity) is like visiting two different worlds.

March 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

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