This post has been updated.
Trump spoke with the New York Times on Wednesday and went all-in on his claim that the Obama White House used its surveillance and national security powers against him. Trump accused former national security adviser Susan E. Rice, who was reported this week to have unmasked the names of Trump associates in intelligence reports, of having committed a crime, without providing evidence. He also suggested that other Obama administration officials were involved in the conspiracy, without providing evidence.
“I think it’s going to be the biggest story,” said Trump, who previously compared the situation to Watergate. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.”
Trump reportedly declined multiple requests to back up his claims, saying he would do so “at the right time,” for some reason.
Asked whether he thought Rice had committed a crime, Trump responded: “Do I think? Yes, I think.”
Much as with Trump's initial wiretapping claim, there is no public evidence to support his claim that Rice's unmasking of Trump associates broke the law or that other Obama officials were involved. Unmasking is something officials like Rice are permitted to request and do so regularly for informational purposes, and permission must be granted by the relevant intelligence agency in each individual case. Because intelligence reports don't name U.S. persons, authorized officials must request that their identities be unmasked if they believe it to be important to their understanding of the information. It is not the same as leaking this information to the public.
It's not clear what crime Trump believes Rice might have committed, but he has regularly targeted leakers. Rice insisted Tuesday that she did not leak anything and that she requested such unmaskings as part of her normal daily duties — not for political reasons. And there is no reason to doubt that it was anything beyond that at this point.
That hasn't stopped conservative media outlets and a few GOP senators from claiming that this is some kind of “smoking gun” in regards to Trump's wiretapping claims. And Rice didn't help matters by, in an interview two weeks ago, appearing to deny knowledge of Trump associates being wrapped up in incidental surveillance of foreigners. She explained Tuesday that she was referring to specific intelligence reports.
The White House has claimed that this incidental surveillance vindicated Trump's initial claims. But there is no indication that any surveillance was actually targeted at Trump, as he claimed, or that Trump Tower was wiretapped, as he claimed. (Incidental surveillance is surveillance that is targeted at foreigners but may sweep up Americans by happenstance, so any Trump associates who were wrapped up in it would not have been targeted. Even House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who is under fire for being too favorable to Trump, has admitted this.)
But that hasn't prevented Trump's supporters from believing him. A poll last week showed that 3 in 4 Republicans believed it was at least “somewhat likely” that Trump's “offices were wiretapped, or under government surveillance during the 2016 presidential campaign.”
Nunes's disclosure of incidental surveillance of Trump associates doesn't back up this belief. And neither does Rice's unmasking. But more than a month after making his massive claim, Trump is using these revelations to muddy the waters — and apparently isn't going to stop.
If Trump actually has evidence of any of this, he's playing a really cynical game by not disclosing it. The only other conclusion is that he's making it up as he goes.