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What's behind President Trump's angry tweets that President Obama tapped his phones

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Early Saturday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted that he “just found out” that former President Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” just before the election. Trump then claimed his “phones” specifically were tapped by Obama “in October” and added, “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

The president cited zero sources and gave zero evidence for these earthshaking claims, and even his top aides were reportedly caught flat-footed by them. Then, he changed the subject from this allegedly momentous scandal he had just discovered to tweet about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s low ratings as host of The Apprentice. And then he headed out to go golfing.

There’s … a lot to unpack here.

First, there’s Trump’s allegation that President Obama was personally involved in tapping him. He’s offered absolutely no evidence of this, so there’s no reason to believe it. And early Saturday afternoon, an Obama spokesperson released a statement strongly denying the claim, saying President Obama and White House officials did not interfere with Department of Justice investigations as a “rule.”

There’s also no indication so far that Trump’s phone calls were personally “tapped.” However, the question about whether “wires” and “phones” in Trump Tower “were tapped” before the election is much more difficult to untangle. That’s because there was and apparently still is a wide-ranging, FBI-led investigation into Trump associates and Russian operatives or banks. We don’t yet know the investigation’s full scope, or what it may have turned up.

However, on Sunday morning’s Meet the Press, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd whether he’d know if the FBI had gotten a FISA court order for any surveillance at Trump Tower. Clapper said that he was able to affirmatively deny that that happened. “For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign,” Clapper said (though he added that he couldn’t speak for all parts of the federal government, or state or local entities).

The reaction of White House staffers here is also telling. All through Saturday they offered no on-the-record elaboration on what Trump meant or defense of his comments. Finally, on Sunday morning, Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a vague statement saying Trump is requesting that congressional intelligence committees investigate “whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016,” and concluding, “Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted.” (This essentially means, “we’ve got no evidence and we don’t want to talk about this anymore.”)

The broader political context is that potential Russia-related scandals continue to dog the young administration, as this week’s controversy involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes clear — and that the president himself is still trying to figure out how to best respond.

Many details of the investigation into Trump associates and Russia remain unknown

The most likely explanation for why Trump is suddenly making the claim that “wires” and “phones” in Trump Tower “were tapped” in October isn’t that he got some new government briefing. It’s that he became aware of a recent Breitbart article on how the Obama administration may have been trying to undermine Trump. The article, which riffs on a Mark Levin radio segment, was quoted on Fox News Saturday morning and, per the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, has been circulating among White House aides recently.

This daisy chain of conservative media content ultimately leads to an older article from the website Heat Street, written by Louise Mensch. The article reports that, in October, federal investigators got a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant “to examine the activities of ‘U.S. persons’ in Donald Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia.” Mensch’s sources told her that a computer server in Trump Tower was a main focus of the investigation, and that emails may have been examined.

Importantly, some aspects of Mensch’s report have been confirmed by other media outlets, but others have not. For instance, the BBC’s Paul Wood reported that an October FISA warrant was issued, but in his telling it was targeted at electronic records from two Russian banks. Most other major media outlets have not confirmed the existence of the warrant. And Clapper’s comments on Meet the Press seem to be a strong denial that there was any FISA warrant issued related to Trump Tower in any way.

So despite Trump’s accusations, we don’t yet have solid information on 1) whether servers (or phones) in Trump Tower were or were not tapped, 2) the evidentiary justification for any tapping that did occur, if any, or 3) exactly whose communications might have been targeted.

Perhaps most controversially, we don’t know whether Trump’s own communications may have been targeted — and if they were targeted, what the government’s evidentiary justification may have been. (Clapper’s remarks Sunday, though, seem to be a strong denial that Trump was wiretapped in any way.)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) discussed the two-sided nature of this situation during an event held on Saturday morning, not long after Trump’s tweetstorm. If Trump’s claims are true and the taps were illegal, Graham said, “it would be the biggest political scandal since Watergate.”

But, he continued, if Obama “was able to obtain a warrant lawfully to monitor Trump’s campaign for violating the law, that would be the biggest scandal since Watergate.” (The implication being that the government would probably have some pretty damning stuff on the Trump campaign to convince a judge to give them a legal warrant.)

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) — who, like Graham, is a frequent GOP Trump critic — continued in this vein. “If there were wiretaps of then-candidate Trump's organization or campaign, then it was either with FISA Court authorization or without such authorization,” Sasse said in a statement. “If without, the President should explain what sort of wiretap it was and how he knows this. It is possible he was illegally tapped.”

Then Sasse made the pivot: “On the other hand, if it was with a legal FISA court order, then an application for surveillance exists that the Court found credible. The President should ask that this full application regarding surveillance of foreign operatives or operations be made available, ideally to the full public, and at a bare minimum to the US Senate.” He added: “We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust.”

Trump is struggling to deal with the “drip, drip, drip” of Russia stories

To understand the fuller context for the president’s tweetstorm, though, let’s rewind a few days.

On Tuesday, Trump delivered his joint address to Congress and won rave reviews for staying (in the judgment of the political press) positive and on-message. But the following evening, all this goodwill vanished when news broke that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign, despite seeming to tell Congress that he hadn’t. After nearly a full day of controversy and criticism, Sessions agreed to recuse himself from any investigations related to the 2016 election.

It was an embarrassing defeat for Trump, who’s already ended up firing top national security aide Michael Flynn for Russia-related matters, and yet another sign that his administration will be under a cloud for as long as this investigation continues. And the president doesn’t appear to be happy about it. Robert Costa reports that Trump left for Florida “in a fury on Friday, fuming about Sessions’s recusal and telling aides that Sessions shouldn’t have recused himself,” and ABC’s Jonathan Karl and Chris Vlasto report that Trump “erupted with anger” over Russia-related news reports at a White House senior staff meeting that day.

More broadly, Trump’s previous attempts to push back on the Russia scandal have failed. He’s tried to call it fake news, he’s tried to call it Democrats trying to distract from their election loss, he’s tried to point out that Democrats have met with Russian government officials in the past at times too. Nothing has worked.

Meanwhile, Trump has felt besieged by a seemingly endless series of leaks from apparently every level of the government, many of which have been related to these investigations into his associates’ contacts with Russian operatives during the campaign. And we know that when Trump feels on the defensive, he usually wants to hit back against someone.

So, this morning, we see this this flurry of tweets that are vintage Trump. They’re surprising, they’re confrontational, and they lob enormous accusations with no apparent evidence. It’s unclear whether he’s conspiratorial enough to truly believe that Obama was personally sabotaging him or whether he’s happy to just make the accusations without caring whether they’re true.

What is clear is that the Russia investigation is an enormous problem for him that he hasn’t quite figured out how to address. Indeed, his move this morning has only led to more questions.

Updated with James Clapper’s remarks on Meet the Press and Sean Spicer’s statement Sunday morning.

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