Following Saturday’s charges come Sunday’s denials.
On Saturday in a series of tweets Donald Trump accused his predecessor Barack Obama of wiretapping his office in Trump Tower. A few hours later Obama responded with a statement published by his spokesman which neither admitted nor denied the wiretap but which said that Obama himself had never ordered surveillance within the US on anyone.
Then came an interview for NBC by Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. In it in carefully chosen words Clapper said that he had “no knowledge” of any FISA court authorising wiretaps of Trump Tower, and that no section of the US intelligence community which he supervised had carried out such a wiretap.
Some sections of the media – especially in Britain the BBC and the Guardian – have reported these denials in a way that gives the impression to a casual viewer or reader that Clapper has denied the existence of the wiretap outright. This is certainly not so. Clapper carefully words were
[For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw] there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign…..I can’t speak for other authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity
(bold italics added)
In words which have received far less publicity, Clapper also denied that he had seen any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and said that the report on Russian interference in the election submitted to Obama and Trump, a redacted version of which was provided to Congress, and a further redacted (and content free) version of which was made public, made no such claim
Clapper was also asked on “Meet the Press” if he had any evidence that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russian government while the Kremlin was working to influence the election.
“Not to my knowledge,” Clapper said, based on the information he had before his time in the position ended.
“We did not include anything in our report … that had any reflect of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that included in our report,” he said. “We had no evidence of such collusion.”
A few hours after Clapper’s comments, there appeared an article in The New York Times drawing on the usual anonymous sources. This claimed that shortly after the President published his tweets on Saturday FBI Director Comey contacted the Justice Department to say that the President’s claim that Obama had ordered Trump’s phone in Trump Tower wiretapped was false, and asked the Justice Department to publish a retraction (as of the time of writing the Justice Department has published no such retraction).
In a comment which I see as intended to goad Comey into publishing his own statement denying the President’s claims, The New York Times questions why he has not done so
It is not clear why Mr. Comey did not issue a statement himself. He is the most senior law enforcement official who was kept on the job as the Obama administration gave way to the Trump administration. And while the Justice Department applies for intelligence-gathering warrants, the F.B.I. keeps its own records and is in a position to know whether Mr. Trump’s claims are true. While intelligence officials do not normally discuss the existence or nonexistence of surveillance warrants, no law prevents Mr. Comey from issuing the statement.
As I recall, The New York Times initially also made the very strange claim that because Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged contacts with Russia, Comey was finding it difficult to find anyone in the Justice Department competent to handle his request.
That cannot be true since Sessions’s statement on Friday made it clear that it would be the acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente who would henceforth be supervising the investigation and who Comey would therefore be dealing with. I notice that the current version of the story in The New York Times no longer makes this claim.
It is always difficult (and perhaps unwise) to comment on something someone is reported to have said based on accounts of what that person is reported to have said which are provided anonymously and at second hand. Assuming however that The New York Times story is true (as I believe) and assuming that Comey’s concerns are also being reported accurately (which with some qualifications I also believe) then Comey is not actually denying that a wiretap took place, merely that Obama ordered it. Here is the first paragraph of The New York Times report
The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, asked the Justice Department this weekend to publicly reject President Trump’s assertion that President Barack Obama ordered the tapping of Mr. Trump’s phones, senior American officials said on Sunday. Mr. Comey has argued that the highly charged claim is false and must be corrected, they said, but the department has not released any such statement.
This is of course what Obama said in his statement on Saturday, and which (as I have already pointed out) is almost certainly true
The statement does not deny that Donald Trump’s office in Trump Tower was wiretapped. Nor does it deny that Donald Trump’s ‘associates’ (a flexible word the precise meaning of which has never been made clear) or members of his campaign team were placed under surveillance.
Instead it indirectly denies that Obama himself or people working directly under him in the White House ordered these actions. It does so by denying they have ever ordered surveillance of any US citizen, something which by the way is almost certainly true.
The statement hints than any order to wiretap Donald Trump’s office or for carrying out surveillance on Donald Trump’s ‘associates’ was the work of officials in the Justice Department, and it seeks to shift responsibility – or blame – onto them.
This too is almost certainly true.
(bold italics added)
On the face of it therefore Comey’s comments – if they are being reported accurately – do not add anything to what following Obama’s statement of Saturday we already know.
Certain other comments attributed to Comey in The New York Times article are attracting less attention, though they are actually very interesting.
Firstly, it seems that what drove Comey to contact the Justice Department is concern that Donald Trump’s tweets on Saturday implied that the FBI by wiretapping his office had broken the law.
Mr. Comey, who made the request on Saturday after Mr. Trump levelled his allegation on Twitter, has been working to get the Justice Department to knock down the claim because it falsely insinuates that the F.B.I. broke the law, the officials said.
Comey’s concern here is entirely legitimate. As I have said previously, if there was a wiretap and if it was authorised by a court after an application made in the proper way by the Justice Department, then the wiretap was legal. Comey is absolutely right to want to set the record straight about this. Presumably in the absence of a public statement that will be done over the course of the Congressional inquiries which the President has now requested.
The second point is even more interesting, which is that The New York Times story again essentially confirms that the FBI investigation into the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is drawing a blank.
In addition to being concerned about potential attacks on the bureau’s credibility, senior F.B.I. officials are said to be worried that the notion of a court-approved wiretap will raise the public’s expectations that the federal authorities have significant evidence implicating the Trump campaign in colluding with Russia’s efforts to disrupt the presidential election.
(bold italics added)
This is very twisted language which shows that The New York Times is not reporting this part of the story straightforwardly. However the meaning is clear enough. The FBI is worried that the more discussion of its investigation there is – extending all the way to discussions by no less a person than the President himself of court approved wiretaps – the more people will fall for the false ‘no smoke without fire’ argument, and will feel let down by the FBI when it eventually announces that its investigation has drawn a blank.
This is an entirely valid concern, and is one of several reasons why such investigations are supposed to be confidential.
This is the second confirmation within a few hours from people who have held posts within the national security bureaucracy that the endlessly repeated claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia are not supported by evidence. The first was made by Clapper (see above) and the second was made anonymously to The New York Times by officials of the FBI.
These admissions follow a continuous pattern of admissions from officials within the national security bureaucracy now stretching back months that inquiries into claims of collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia are drawing a blank.
Not only in the present paranoid atmosphere are these admissions being ignored, but the security agencies are being constantly bullied to divert more and more resources into more and more inquiries to find the evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia which officials of the security agencies repeatedly say is not there.
Students of political witch-hunts eg. the Popish Plot in Seventeenth Century England, the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, or the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s, will recognise the phenomenon.
The position therefore as of the time of writing is that Obama has denied – though in a very convoluted way – that he ordered a wiretap (though he has hinted that if there was a wiretap it was the Justice Department which requested it), Comey is reported as having also denied that Obama ordered a wiretap, and Clapper has denied that the part of the bureaucracy that he supervised sought or carried out a wiretap.
These are not denials that a wiretap took place. Neither are they admissions that it did take place. I have repeatedly warned against the logical error of inferring a positive from a negative, and of treating a denial of one thing as an admission of something else. What it is fair to say is that the fingers are being pointed towards Obama’s Justice Department, and that so far its senior officers – Loretta Lynch and Sally Yates – are staying silent.