President Donald Trump, who is noted for his frequent exaggerations, just might have been right about the Obama administration’s attempts to derail his campaign. CNN, a hostile news source that had previously denounced Trump’s claims that he had been wiretapped at Trump Tower, reported late on Monday that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was in fact tapped by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Depending on the political inclinations of the journalists covering the story, the tale has either been framed as a vindication of Trump’s generally derided claims about the Obama administration or yet another bit of evidence demonstrating that Team Trump colluded with the Russians in an effort to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Despite the lack of information provided by the government, the narrative surrounding Manafort appears to go something like this: Manafort is a long time political consultant. Beginning in 2004 and continuing for a decade, Manafort served as a top adviser to former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, and worked together with a number of other Washington based consultants. His involvement somehow came to the attention of the FBI in 2014, possibly due to allegations that Yanukovich had stolen millions of dollars and hidden it somewhere, perhaps with the help of foreign associates. As a consequence, a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant was sought by the Bureau which was then issued to permit tel-tapping and other forms of investigation to determine if U.S. foreign lobbying and money laundering laws had been broken. The initial inquiry was eventually allowed to lapse “for lack of evidence.”
According to apparently new information obtained by the Bureau, a second warrant was obtained in the summer of 2016, presumably when Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager. However, the timeline is not completely clear. Manafort was wiretapped, presumably to include his residence in Trump Tower, and the eavesdropping continued until early 2017, even after Trump was inaugurated. Manafort reportedly spoke with Trump throughout that period, although it has not been revealed whether Trump—as president-elect or president—was personally recorded as a result.
Investigation into the so-called Russiagate has sped up since the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel in May, with some of the ongoing investigation focused on Manafort, and whether his relationship with Ukraine violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938. It is suspected that Manafort may have been acting on behalf of the government in Kiev, requiring registration, or was somehow possibly involved in money laundering or tax irregularities. The principal focus, however, has been on the possibility that Manafort actively colluded with the Russian government to influence the U.S. election. To that end, Manafort has been questioned by a grand jury, and his home in Alexandria was raided by FBI agents in the early morning of July 26 as he and his family were sleeping. The lock on the door to his house was picked to enable entry. His computer drives were copied, hard files were taken, and even his suits were photographed to provide evidence that his attire was “expensive.” Prosecutors subsequently told Manafort that they were planning to indict him.
Based on what has been reported as well as on scanty available evidence, one can pick through the various media accounts and eventually select the “meaning” of the Manafort affair. Either Trump is vindicated or he and his election team colluded with the Russians. Those who are more cautious might be inclined to hedge their bets, positing that both interpretations are partially correct. Trump Tower might not have been the target of wiretapping, and Manafort might have behaved indiscreetly and in violation of FARA—but he would never have attempted to interfere with the election. So everyone could be somewhat wrong and somewhat right and the investigation continues.
Sifting through what might have happened is interesting, but we will never know the truth until the federal government releases more evidence regarding what prompted the two FBI inquiries in the first place. And the analysis at this point is lacking some important considerations. First of all, someone in the Obama administration had to make the extremely politically sensitive decision to secretly investigate the campaign manager of the Republican Party’s nominee when the surveillance was renewed in summer 2016. Obama has denied that he did any such thing and a Justice Department investigation has asserted that there was no evidence of any Trump Tower surveillance. But put aside the lawyerly language, and it becomes clear that while Obama might not have personally approved the eavesdropping, someone in his White House surely did. And as for the Justice Department, evidence can easily be destroyed or erased or never recorded in the first place.
It has also been claimed that FISA warrants are only issued when there is significant probable cause that a crime has been committed, meaning that Manafort “must have done something,” but the fact is that nearly all FISA requests are approved and few of them result in actual prosecution. FISA warrants are also top secret and exposing them is a felony. The fact that the details of FISA involvement with Manafort vis-à-vis Ukraine leaked to the media shortly after the investigation was reopened in 2016 is suggestive. It eventually forced Manafort to resign, embarrassing Trump. And the fact that stories damaging to Trump based on classified information are continuing to appear in the media is yet another indication that the war of the leaks against the current administration is continuing. Since the leakers and other government officials cited in the media coverage are anonymous, allegations of guilt or innocence should be considered with some skepticism.
Finally, and possibly most important, the Manafort case from start to finish demonstrates once again that the unitary executive concept that has prevailed in the White House since 2001 is alive and well. A White House team dedicated to getting its candidate elected can and will use all the mechanisms of power that are at hand to achieve that goal, including surveilling and digging up dirt on a political opponent. The possible misuse of the FBI and the FISA court is in some ways even worse that Richard Nixon’s Watergate, since Nixon mostly used non-government resources to corrupt the process while the Manafort investigation has taken corruption up a notch, employing federal agencies acting in secret during a hotly contested electoral campaign.
The corruption of the American political process is obvious if assumptions about a White House role in wiretapping Manafort turn out to be true. Will anyone who runs for higher office in the future want to be confronted by executive power acting secretly through the law enforcement and intelligence services to discredit him or her, as well as a large and widening group of family and associates? It is a hostile winnowing process that many potentially good candidates would not want to endure. It is also manifestly an abuse of power. Some believe that Mueller is conducting something a witch hunt that is at its heart politically motivated. If true, it will eventually become clear. Meanwhile Manafort, who has fully cooperated with the investigations into his involvement in Russiagate, is innocent until proven guilty.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.