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December 13th, 2017

Insight

Trump fails to take his wiretap story seriously

Ramesh Ponnuru

By Ramesh Ponnuru Bloomberg View

Published March 8, 2017

Trump fails to take his wiretap story seriously

Suppose President Donald Trump has some basis for saying that the Barack Obama administration abused its investigative powers to go after him and his associates last year. The possibility cannot be ruled out at this point. But Trump and his aides are making it hard to take the accusation seriously.

On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted that he had just learned that Obama had his wires tapped in Trump Tower right before the election. Neither he nor his aides offered proof. The claim has now been denied by a spokesman for the former president, by FBI Director James Comey and by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Some people greeted Trump's claim credulously. The president's cheering section believed him, of course. So did some of his most bitter foes. Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean took it as a given that Trump was right about being wiretapped, but said that it proved that a judge had "found probable cause that Trump was engaging in criminal activity."

But just because people with varying views have reasons to believe Trump doesn't mean he's right.

There was just enough in the news to buttress the story for the believers. Reports for Heat Street, the Guardian and the BBC over several months had suggested, with thin sourcing, that the FBI had sought to monitor transactions involving Trump aides.

Of course, even if those reports are true, they do not establish what Trump alleged: that Obama had personally ordered the surveillance. They don't even establish that Trump himself was being surveilled, or that the surveillance took the form of wiretapping.

But they do leave open the possibility that the Obama administration conducted improper surveillance of the Trump team. Julian Sanchez, a journalist who writes about technology and the law, raises one scenario: What if the FBI was asking for the authority to monitor foreigners as a back-door way to get incriminating information on Americans working for Trump?

That would have opened the door to the politically motivated use of the Obama administration's powers. The denials from Obama's spokesmen, and the other current and former government officials, do not cover this scenario.

One way or another, it's worth finding out. But Trump's tactic of flinging around wild accusations based loosely on a few news reports makes uncovering the truth harder.

Nothing Trump's own administration has said or done so far indicates that it takes his accusations seriously. And that starts at the top with the president himself. Trump explicitly accused his predecessor of misconduct on the level of "Watergate," and then moved on to tweeting about his feud with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Trump press aide Sarah Huckabee Sanders went on ABC to say that her boss may have been onto something -- which means she can't vouch for the accuracy of his assertion.

Sean Spicer, his press secretary, has taken a similar tack: Trump's claim has become a troubling report, on his telling. He then said that since oversight is continuing, the White House would have no further comment on the matter, a stance that was hard to square with Trump's decision to give it maximum publicity. Spicer didn't let an hour pass without commenting on it again.

In any other administration, this would be bizarre behavior. For this one, it's par for the course.

Again: The possibility that Trump has some legitimate grievance about the behavior of the Obama administration can't be ruled out. But there's no reason to take that possibility more seriously than Trump himself seems to be taking it.

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Ramesh Ponnuru has covered national politics and public policy for 18 years. He is an author and Bloomberg View columnist.

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