Who in the White House Decided to Wiretap Manafort?

Trump may have been right about Obama efforts to derail campaign.

Paul Manafort at the 2016 Republican National Convention /Shutterstock.com

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.

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32 Responses to Who in the White House Decided to Wiretap Manafort?

  1. MM says:

    I believe this makes the 2nd time both Obama and Clapper have lied publicly about domestic surveillance. Ubiquitous, but it’s probably the final nail in the Democratic Party’s coffin regarding any semblance of respect for privacy rights. Abortion and library books, yes, but they can’t claim they support privacy rights for anything else.

    At this point, the question should be who wasn’t spied on by the prior administration. I don’t care about the rationale, warrants, etc. because it obviously had no bounds:

    Any American via cell phone and email communications, members of Congress investigating the NSA, members of the Trump campaign, Merkel, Netanyahu, EU officials.

    Did I miss anybody?

  2. Kurt Gayle says:

    Thank you, Philip, for pointing this out:

    “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.”

  3. Papa88 says:

    FISA the secret court. It has power with no check.
    I’m worried.

  4. Allwin says:

    Secret agents are there like Jamesbond. Bad and Sad days for Manafort.

  5. sam says:

    CIA is adept at a regime change.

  6. Fran Macadam says:

    Mueller, the former Wall Street mandarin. That says it all, in the metastasized American oligarchy we now all live under. Who, whom. Them, us.

  7. JohnS says:

    “The corruption of the American political process is obvious if assumptions about a White House role in wiretapping Manafort turn out to be true.”

    In other words, this piece is baseless innuendo.

  8. Centralist says:

    I do not think this covers Trump’s call that he was wiretapped for political reason. This is Manafort being wiretapped for working with corrupt leaders of another state. If Trump got listened to its not because they wanted to listen to Trump its because Trump picked poor campaign head. While I general do not approve of wiretapping I understand the utility of them and think the biggest reason they did it is because if they catch Manafort having done wrong they can fine in a lot of money to put in one of the Government Money Furnaces in hopes of putting out the burning debt.

  9. KevinS says:

    “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.”

    Of course, both of these claims can be completely true: Obama tapped the phones and the Trump team colluded with the Russians.

  10. polistra says:

    Details of spying don’t matter. Everyone spies on everyone. That’s a universal perpetual CONSTANT. It’s part of Nature.

    The correct question, the VARIABLE, is on the defensive side. Why didn’t Trump’s security staff detect and halt and EXPOSE the wiretaps or hacks when they happened?

  11. Put the Past in the Past says:

    Gotta love Republicans pulling out every play in the playbook – of course Manafort needed to be wiretapped, he is working with the FSB/KGB.

    Where is the outcry from “conservatives” over Russia using Facebook to organize dozens of pro Trump rallies in Florida, that probably impacted the results of the vote in that state.

    Is Validmir Putin the head of the Republican National Committee now? He did more than Preibus to get Trump elected.

  12. The Other Sands says:

    The FBI is not Obama.
    Manafort is not Trump.
    Manafort’ cellphone is not Trump Tower.

    If the FBI started investigating him in 2014, two years before he joined the campaign, that would be some foresight of it’s just a political hit.

  13. Robert Levine says:

    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.

    Objection; assumes facts not in evidence.

  14. collin says:

    Wow! Are in another round of Obama and Susan Rice did what? And in two weeks, when the evidence comes out it will appear Obama had little impact on FISA and Susan Rice acted like EVERY other NSA in requesting for unmasking. And yes I believe that the Bush/Clinton Ad had some spying on Obama/Bush but there was nothing suspect like meeting world leaders without notifying the State Department.
    On the other hand, what the heck was Trump doing with Manafort and Flynn? At this point, I am starting to believe they were on Russian and Turkey payrolls and reporting every secret to their leaders. And why are they not in handcuffs?

  15. Jerry Skurnik says:

    They started tapping Manafort in 2014 in order to listen to Trump in 2016?

  16. Kurt Gayle says:

    JohnS posted at 7:43 a.m.:

    “[Philip Giraldi:] The corruption of the American political process is obvious if assumptions about a White House role in wiretapping Manafort turn out to be true.”

    “[JohnS:] “In other words, this piece is baseless innuendo.”

    “Baseless innuendo”?

    Philip Giraldi linked to this Sept 19, 2017 CNN report: “US investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election, sources tell CNN, an extraordinary step involving a high-ranking campaign official…The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump…A secret order authorized by the court that handles the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) began after Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation that began in 2014…The surveillance was discontinued at some point last year for lack of evidence, according to one of the sources. The FBI then restarted the surveillance after obtaining a new FISA warrant that extended at least into early this year…Such warrants require the approval of top Justice Department and FBI officials.”

    http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/18/politics/paul-manafort-government-wiretapped-fisa-russians/index.html

    @ JohnS: The Justice Department (DOJ) is a federal executive department of the US Government. The DOJ administers the FBI. The head of the DOJ, the US Attorney General, is a member of the President’s Cabinet. In 2016 the US Attorney General was Loretta Lynch and the US President was Barack Obama.

  17. MM says:

    “Of course Manafort needed to be wiretapped, he is working with the FSB/KGB.”

    So why the lying, then, by Obama and Clapper? It’s ignominious at this point.

    I won’t even comment on the head of the DNC in the last election. Except to point out that she willingly hired foreign nationals who subsequently received access and apparently stole sensitive Congressional information, and then attempted to flee the country.

    I haven’t seen the Left this openly contemptuous of another country since maybe South Africa in the 1980s, or perhaps just the good old U.S.A. whenever the GOP is in the White House. McCarthy got a lot less traction out of the Red Scare in the 1950s…

  18. Joe says:

    Is the author suggesting the Obama administration attempted to derail the Trump campaign before there was a Trump campaign? Initial FISA warrant issued 2014, Trump announced June 2015.

  19. Ken Zaretzke says:

    “Some believe that Mueller is conducting something [of] 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.”

    The danger is that in the meantime Trump will be hamstrung in enacting his policies. Trump voters should lean on the Republican Party, which is part of the conspiracy to weaken Trump, by promising not to vote for another Republican for president if (1) Trump is faithful to his campaign promises on immigration, and (2) he is not re-elected because of the what-me-worry antics of Mueller.

  20. March Hare says:

    So a presidential candidate can appoint a campaign manager who is widely suspected of being a foreign agent. He later admits being one, and admits he failed to identify himself as such. So even under the best of circumstances, he’s a known crook. He’s not alone, at least one other member of the campaign remains on a foreign government payroll as well.

    Yet somehow, surveillance of this known crook is evidence of nefarious interference in the election?

    I’m actually a fairly extreme advocate of civil liberties, but I simply do not see a problem here.

    As a mental exercise, consider a possible future candidate, say, a Democrat with ties to a notoriously corrupt labor union. The candidate hires an operative from this union as an attempt to reach out to what remains of the labor movement, ignoring widely held opinions that he’s crooked. Would the FBI be justified in continuing its investigation of him, or restarting an old one that had failed to nail him?

  21. traitor-trump says:

    Giraldi the supposed American IC officer acts as a pro-Trump shill whenever Russia is involved. Mighty suspicious.

    He can’t even keep his timeline straight and makes accusations and leaves out evidence.

    -A known foreign asset (Manafort) who was working for the Ukrainian government under a Kremlin stooge up until the point he was chosen as the campaign manager for Trump. That is where the surveillance has a break.
    Then when he is no longer a campaign manager, he is back under surveilance for the same kind of pro-Russia activities he did before.

    -This also while another foreign asset (Flynn) was working for Russia, Turkey, and Jordan all throughout the entire campaign, and right up until the Inauguration.

    But don’t worry, this is all political. Mueller is just fishing for things, despite the proven facts that both men high up in the Trump campaign, following a man who said great things about Russia and Putin.

    I come to TAC for the laughs now to see how far it has jumped the shark from a restrained Foreign policy and non-insane domestic policy to a conspiracy Trump knobbing place.

  22. Badger says:

    Man, that Obama really was an evil genius. He had such foresight that he forced the FBI to get a FISA wiretap on Manafort in 2014. Because he just KNEW that Trump would run for President a year before he announced. And he also just KNEW that Trump would hire Manafort as his campaign chairman in two years. And don’t forget all of the really aggressive and unprecedented steps that Obama took to interfere in the election to help Hillary. My personal top 3 are:

    1) ????
    2) ????
    3) ????

    Remember its because Obama is an evil genius that wants to destroy American democracy. Its not that Manafort is a scumbag that does the dirty work for bigger scumbags.
    /s

    On a serious note, how does TAC continue to publish this type of hit piece drivel that contains no facts only innuendo? I would expect this type of trash on Breitbart not on a site that says its committed to honest discussion from right-of-center point-of-view.

  23. Ian says:

    Trump apoligist keep hoping the scandal will be the investigation into Russian collusion and not the collusion itself. They will be disappointed.

  24. MM says:

    “So a presidential candidate can appoint a campaign manager who is widely suspected of being a foreign agent. He later admits being one, and admits he failed to identify himself as such. So even under the best of circumstances, he’s a known crook.”

    You just described John Podesta, of the Podesta Group, in a nutshell.

    Is it too much to then ask, therefore, where the FISA warrant is authorizing a wiretap of him, while he was Hillary’s campaign chairman and giant Democratic Party donor?

    You know, just to prove that the Obama administration wasn’t using U.S. national intelligence resources in a self-serving, highly coincidental, political fashion.

  25. David Harrell says:

    The inmates are running the prison, and the crooks are prosecuting those we elected to prosecute them.

  26. JohnS says:

    @Kurt Gayle

    Yes, baseless innuendo. There is zero evidence to suggest there was any wrong-doing surrounding the FISA warrants. If you have evidence, please supply it. Mr. Giraldi knows there isn’t any evidence, hence his phrase “if assumptions…turn out to be true.”

    Pro-tip: you can’t build a case on wishful thinking.

  27. Davebo says:

    The first FISA warrant on Manafort was issued years before he joined the Trump campaign and the last months after he left.

    I know, inconvenient, but still you know, fact.

  28. John of Dorset says:

    There seems to be some serious reading comprehension issues amongst commentators here. As the article notes, there were two FISA warrants against Manafort. Yes, one was in 2014, but it lapsed, presumably for lack of evidence. The second one was right in the middle of the campaign. It could be coincidence, but the timing is interesting.

  29. Rob G says:

    Funny, the Democrats here seem to have selective memory when it comes to defending their own party. To wit: it’s entirely possible for the “White House” to engage in unsavory activity without the POTUS’s knowledge.

    Watergate, anyone?

    I say this as an independent who voted for neither DT nor HRC, and as one who couldn’t care less about the future of either party. But they both need to learn that it’s generally the cover-ups, not the activities themselves, that cause the biggest stinks.

  30. icarusr says:

    “Yes, one was in 2014, but it lapsed, presumably for lack of evidence.”

    That “presumably” is doing a lot of work there.

    “To wit: it’s entirely possible for the “White House” to engage in unsavory activity without the POTUS’s knowledge.”

    Iran-Contra?

    What is the unsavoury activity, going to court and asking for a warrant?

  31. DGJ says:

    My feeling is that Obama and Joe Biden were trying to sabotage Hillary the way she and Bill sabotaged Gore back in 2000. Notice how Barrack ignored the campaign until October then jumped in at the last minute for a handful of face-saving public appearances. Had Obama wanted to sabotage Trump, the tax return and all of the Apprentice tapes would have landed in Julian Assange’s email one day.

  32. Kurt Gayle says:

    @ JohnS: Let me refer you back to the Sept 19, 2017 CNN report: “US investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election, sources tell CNN, an extraordinary step involving a high-ranking campaign official…The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump…A secret order authorized by the court that handles the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) began after Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation that began in 2014…The surveillance was discontinued at some point last year for lack of evidence, according to one of the sources. The FBI then restarted the surveillance after obtaining a new FISA warrant that extended at least into early this year…Such warrants require the approval of top Justice Department and FBI officials.”

    Among the key phrases from the CNN report of which you might take note, JohnS:

    (1) “an extraordinary step involving a high-ranking campaign official”

    (2) especially in light of the fact that the surveillance had been “discontinued at some point last year [2016] for lack of evidence” and that

    (3) “restarting the surveillance…required[d] the approval of top [Obama Cabinet] Justice Department…officials.”

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