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The White House’s wiretapping shell game

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on March 16 said President Trump “stands by” allegations he made that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on him. (Video: Reuters)

There was one talking point from White House press secretary Sean Spicer's wild briefing on Thursday that was extremely telling. He kept referring to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) having said this week: “I think it's very possible.”

Spicer used the quote repeatedly to argue that Nunes allowed for the possibility that Trump or his aides had been surveilled during the 2016 election.

But the quote doesn't mean nearly as much as Spicer suggested, and it doesn't even come close to backing up Trump's assertion that President Barack Obama wiretapped him. What it does do is show exactly how the White House is moving the goal posts on this issue and may even — eventually — try to claim a victory.

Let's start with the Nunes exchange from Wednesday:

QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that the president himself or anyone working for him in the White House would be one of these names that may have been swept up in something that could, then, have ultimately been leaked, like what happened to Michael Flynn?”
NUNES: Well, I think it's very possible. But, like I said, we should know that by Friday.
QUESTION: Do you think the president himself might be one of those people that was swept up in this?
NUNES: It’s possible.

To be clear, Nunes also said during the same news conference that “clearly the president was wrong” if his tweets were to be taken literally. He also said, “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”

These were the comments the media seized upon, and that's because they actually addressed Trump's claim that Obama wiretapped him. Nunes's “very possible” quote above does not.

Nunes was being asked about something that is referred to in intelligence circles as “incidental collection” — i.e. the idea that Trump and/or his associates were wrapped up in surveillance that wasn't targeted at them, but rather at other people. Say, the Russians. It is widely believed that this is what happened with former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his calls with the Russian ambassador that eventually led to his resignation.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) floated the possibility Thursday that Trump Tower was wrapped up in incidental collection during an appearance on Fox News. “There are some theories out there that this is what's called incidental collection, where there's collection of a foreign individual who calls into the United States, and they happen to gather up U.S. persons on that, as well,” Lankford said.

The problem with Spicer citing the possibility of incidental collection, of course, is that Trump claimed the surveillance was targeted at him — and directed by Obama. Incidental collection is, by definition, incidental — i.e. unintentional. The wiretap wouldn't be of Trump Tower; it would be of whomever was contacting Trump Tower.

The White House has tried to walk back Trump's claim, suggesting he didn't literally mean “wiretapping” or that Obama physically tapped his phone. But it's clear Trump was alleging a political scandal — he referred to Watergate and McCarthyism in his tweets — and incidental collection would simply not rise to that level.

But it's not difficult to see evidence of incidental collection eventually emerging and the Trump team saying, “See! We told you they were surveilling us!”

The White House has been defending President Trump’s claim, without evidence, that former president Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on him in 2016. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

And it may not even stop there. There is also something called “reverse targeting” — i.e. the surveillance of Americans under the guise of surveilling someone overseas. Basically, since you can't spy on Americans, you spy on a foreign person you know they may be in contact with. This is illegal, but Trump certainly hasn't been above spouting conspiracy theories in the past, and it would fit neatly into his “deep state” theory. This idea has already been percolating among some conservative journalists.

To be very clear: None of this would prove Trump's claim at all, and Spicer's decision to cite it is a brazen effort to pretend Trump said something far less controversial than he actually said. But it may be good enough for his supporters and allow Trump and Spicer to bash the media — which seems to be the only thing the White House cares about at this point.