Fact Checker | Analysis
September 22, 2017 at 3:00 AM
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
–President Trump, tweets, March 4, 2017
In March 2017, President Trump earned Four Pinocchios for relying on sketchy media reports to claim that former president Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, his 2016 campaign headquarters. Then, on Sept. 19, CNN reported that the U.S. government wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Trump’s supporters claimed he was vindicated (#TrumpVindicated trended on Twitter), and several readers asked us to revisit our Four Pinocchio rating.
What do we know about the wiretapping of Manafort? Did the CNN report vindicate Trump of his Four-Pinocchio claim?
First, let’s briefly revisit the White House’s explanations for Trump’s March 2017 tweets. (Read our full fact check for more.) Officials provided five articles, and only one reported that a foreign intelligence surveillance (FISA) court order was granted in October to examine possible activity between two Russian banks and a computer server in the Trump Tower.
The report did not say that Obama requested the order, nor that it resulted in the tapping of Trump’s phone lines in Trump Tower.
Further, then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer appeared to couch Trump’s claim. He said Trump used quotation marks around “wires tapped” to refer to surveillance in a general sense.
“I think there’s no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election,” Spicer said in March 2017. “The president used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities.”
At the time, several lawmakers from both parties rejected Trump’s allegation, saying they were not aware of any evidence supporting his claim.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence under Obama, said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” following Trump’s tweets that he would have known about a “FISA court order on something like this. Absolutely, I can deny it.”
Then-FBI Director James Comey said in a congressional testimony after Trump’s tweets that neither his agency nor the Justice Department had evidence to support the president’s allegations. In a court filing in early September 2017, Trump’s own Justice Department and the FBI again said they did not have evidence to support Trump’s claims.
Now, let’s look at the Sept. 19 CNN report.
CNN reported that there was a FISA court order for surveillance of Manafort, relating to the FBI’s investigation of him over potential ties to Ukrainian politics. The FBI investigation began in 2014, sources told CNN. This surveillance was extended at least into early 2017, possibly to include an investigation into Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign.
“Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to three sources familiar with the investigation. Two of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive,” CNN reported.
There’s no evidence that this means Manafort’s residence in Trump Tower was wiretapped. He also has a home in Alexandria, Va., which the FBI raided this summer.
An important note: In order to obtain FISA authority to conduct surveillance inside the United States, an FBI agent would need to prove the case to a federal judge. It requires the approval and review of the courts — not the president or the White House. (Our colleague Ellen Nakashima explained this here.)
After the CNN report, Comey stood by his testimony. His attorney David N. Kelley said: “I don’t believe Jim is aware of any information that would cause him to second guess or change his testimony.”
Further, as we noted earlier, Trump’s own Justice Department said in early September 2017 in a court filing that they do not have evidence that supports his March 2017 tweets.
While the CNN report does not support Trump’s tweets, it does raise the question of whether something Trump said was picked up as a part of the government’s surveillance on Manafort.
Clapper said it is “conceivable” that something Trump said during a conversation with Manafort was picked up by intelligence officials. But he said he was unaware of a FISA warrant on Manafort.
However, the Wall Street Journal reported that Manafort was placed under surveillance after he left the Trump campaign in the summer 2016, and that the surveillance did not involve listening to Manafort’s phone conversations in real-time. So that means Trump’s conversation would not have gotten picked up by any investigator real-time.
But even if there was real-time phone surveillance and Trump happened to be talking to Manafort, that still would not support Trump’s claims from March that Obama ordered a wiretapping of then-presidential candidate Trump’s phone in Trump Tower.
There is no new detail in the Sept. 19 CNN report that warrants a change to our original Four-Pinocchio rating. Trump had claimed that Obama ordered the wiretapping of his phones in Trump Tower just before the presidential election. That allegation remains unproven.
Perhaps it was a Trumpian, inarticulate way of claiming that he learned in March 2017 that the U.S. government had wiretapped his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and that it may have been in Manafort’s residence in Trump Tower. But that’s questionable, since the White House so thoroughly failed at providing any proof to back up Trump’s claim at the time.
The new CNN report does raise questions as to whether a conversation involving Trump was picked up as a part of the wiretapping of Manafort — but that’s not the issue that Trump originally raised.
We stand by our original fact check, and reaffirm our Four-Pinocchio ruling. We will continue to watch for any other developments and update this fact check as necessary.
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