This article has been updated.
It has been tricky for President Trump and his allies to retroactively figure out how to explain his tweets about then-President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. Trump himself has pointed in various directions — random news reports, a headline in the New York Times, etc. — and his allies have, over time, embraced a variety of other theories. The most likely explanation continues to be the one that emerged shortly after he first tweeted the allegation: He’d read a Breitbart article summarizing a claim made by radio host Mark Levin and ran with it in an unfounded direction.
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
A hallmark of Trump’s public persona, though, is that he is never (or only very, very rarely) wrong. Many of his supporters, asked to choose between what Trump says and what the media says in response, are similarly inclined to side with and try to rationalize what Trump has argued.
Two weeks ago, that rationalization took the form of embracing the vague assertions of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), whose announcement that he’d seen not-very-exculpatory documents quickly metastasized into a political problem for Nunes himself as it became clear that the trigger for his seeing those documents was someone in the administration.
This week, a new and unlikely hero: Evelyn Farkas.
Farkas is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia who served in that role from 2012 until she resigned at the end of October 2015. On March 2, she appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” discussing a New York Times article about how the Obama administration had tried to ensure that evidence of Russia’s involvement in the election would not be lost under Trump.
HOST MIKA BRZEZINSKI: You actually knew about this attempt to get and preserve information and, full transparency, were doing some work yourself. Tell us about that.
FARKAS: Well, I was urging my former colleagues, and, frankly speaking, the people on the Hill — it was more, actually, aimed at telling the Hill people: Get as much information as you can, get as much intelligence as you can, before President Obama leaves the administration, because I had a fear that somehow that information would disappear with the senior people that left. So it would be hidden away in the bureaucracy.
That the Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about their, the staff, the Trump staff’s dealing with Russians, that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence. So I became very worried, because not enough was coming out into the open, and I knew that there was more.
We have very good intelligence on Russia. So then I had talked to some of my former colleagues, and I knew that they were trying to also help get information to the Hill.
BRZEZINSKI: A lot going on today.
FARKAS: But that’s why you have the leaking.
During his daily news briefing on Thursday, press secretary Sean Spicer twice referred to those comments from Farkas, which had been featured on conservative radio and on Fox News’ website the day prior.
“[I]f I can go back for a second to something that the Obama administration’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense noted very clearly on the record,” Spicer said, “that they were engaged in an effort to spread information about Trump officials that had come up in intelligence. That’s not — that is several networks. Evelyn Farkas made that proclamation about what was going on during the Obama administration regarding the Trump team. So that is something that they made very clear on the record.”
Asked about it by radio host Hugh Hewitt, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called it “incredible.”
“[I]t’s so cavalier and unbelievable that I just wonder whether this person knows what the heck she’s talking about,” Priebus said.
The headline on the Fox News story summarized the defense: “Former Obama official discloses rush to get intelligence on Trump team.”
You’ll notice that we’re a few steps removed from the Trump tweets themselves. Trump’s wiretapping claims were somehow validated by what Nunes had seen — granting Trump the flexibility that “wiretapping” didn’t necessarily mean an actual wiretap but instead broad surveillance and that “his phones” meant communications systems that may not have been actual phones and may not have been actually his and may not have been actually at Trump Tower. But then the administration was forced to defend how Nunes got that information in the first place, which is how we end up at Farkas: It wasn’t necessarily someone at the White House who leaked that information to Nunes (though reporting suggests that it was).
[I]f you look at Obama’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense that is out there, Evelyn Farkas, she made it clear that it was their goal to spread this information around, that they went around and did this. And she said, “That’s why there are so many leaks.” They have admitted on the record that this was their goal — to leak stuff. And they literally — she said on the record “Trump’s team.” There are serious questions out there about what happened and why and who did it. And I think that’s really where our focus is in making sure that that information gets out.
That’s not really what Farkas said. She said that she had encouraged people in the administration and on Capitol Hill to investigate links between the Trump campaign and Russia in the window before Trump took office and to protect that information from the incoming administration, lest the methods used to collect it be compromised and the information buried. That concern that the truth be known, she said, is why information was being leaked — and she hoped what wasn’t leaked was protected.
Update: Farkas spoke to The Post’s Karen De Young on Thursday night, saying that she “didn’t give anybody anything except advice.” In an interview with the Daily Caller, she said, “I had no intelligence whatsoever, I wasn’t in government anymore and didn’t have access to any.”
To some extent, this is all framing. If you’re inclined to believe that Trump was unfairly targeted by the Obama administration, you will read Farkas’s comments as Spicer does. If you are inclined not to, you may have a different interpretation.
It’s critical to remember here, though, that Farkas wasn’t a part of the administration. She’s someone who had access to information about Russia while she worked for the Defense Department, but she left that role before Trump won a single vote in a single primary. She certainly still knew people within the administration, and she mentions them. But the only thing she attributes to people who still worked for the administration is that they were “trying to also help get information to the Hill” — precisely what the Times story said.
This is mostly sleight of hand. The question of why Trump tweeted what he did has largely been answered, with even Nunes admitting that there’s no evidence Trump was wiretapped. The question of how Nunes got his information is still a bit uncertain, but it’s coming into focus. It seems pretty clear, though, that — unless your question is the already-answered one of whether or not there was any investigation into Trump at all — what someone who didn’t work for Obama at all during 2016 said two days before Trump’s tweets didn’t have much to do with any of it.