In a leak timed perfectly for the evening news broadcasts, sources revealed yesterday evening that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was the subject of electronic surveillance authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, better known as FISA. The anonymous informant(s) told CNN and the New York Times — two of the three go-to outlets for Beltway leakers — that the FBI surveilled Manafort both during and after the 2016 campaign, in an attempt to uncover collusion between him an Russian agents in an effort to propel Trump to the presidency.
This revelation seems almost to contradict the FBI and Justice Department’s earlier denials that they had not wiretapped Trump Tower, as the president had quite publicly accused them of doing. Much like the joke about your computer company’s tech support giving an answer that is technically correct but completely useless, these denials seem to be technically correct but completely misleading. It’s almost impossible to believe that any surveillance of Manafort didn’t include conversations with Trump, which was, after all, the president’s point.
This revelation should hardly come as a surprise, though. After all, Manafort was well known to have worked with the party of former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych who was pro-Russian, and had other business ties that would put him in contact with Russians, any one of who could have been a Russian agent. (On that note, though, one wonders if the FBI also tapped the phones of Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and head of a lobbying and public relations firm that also did work for Yanukovych).
It also calls into question the sincerity of the Obama administration’s denials that they used the Russian investigation for political purposes.
“The fact is, this has to get approval from the highest levels of the Justice Department and the FBI before agents can carry out this type of surveillance,” CNN’s Evan Perez, one of the reporters to break the story, said on air Monday evening. “It’s considered so intrusive that you almost never find out that these FISA warrants are authorized.”
But we did find out. And from my perspective, it stinks.
By Trump standards, the last week has been relatively successful. He defied his own party to negotiate directly with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over dinner to find common ground on DACA and maybe even the Mexican border wall. His visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly was remarkable only in that it was unremarkable. The closest thing reporters could come up with approaching a gaffe was when the president complimented French President Emmanuel Macron on the quality of the Bastille Day parade (and the abilities of the French military, an accurate statement, but one that doesn’t really endear the president to his base). Previews of his Tuesday speech to the UNGA show it to be uncontroversial.
Clearly, in the mind of the person or persons who have been leaking like a sieve since January, the president has had entirely too much positive press this week and needed to be knocked down a peg or two. Time to trot out more salacious Russian scandal tidbits, and the Manafort connection is the perfect angle.
At this point, if I had to guess, I’d say this leak came from New York and not Washington, since as of 9:30 p.m. Monday, two and a half hours after CNN broke the story, there was nothing on the Washington Post’s website, but CNN and the Times had the story.
So far in the Russian investigation, there’s been lots of evidence that Russian agents engaged in a disinformation campaign to at the very least destabilize the election, more likely to influence people to support Trump. But there has been zero evidence that anyone in the Trump campaign actively colluded with those Russian agents, or even passively condoned such actions. But that doesn’t matter to the leakers. The story must be kept on the front pages, so these leaks will continue until either the leaker(s) is (are) caught, or Robert Mueller manages to gather enough evidence to issue an indictment.
And speaking of indictments, the Time story asserts that one of Mueller’s hardball tactics has been to threaten Manafort with indictment. Since FISA wiretaps are inadmissible in a criminal proceeding, it’s more likely Mueller is bluffing. Showtime seems to be getting this one right, too.
The investigation is serious business, and it should be pursued wherever it leads. But it should be allowed to continue unimpeded, both by interference from the White House, and from leakers who use it as a storehouse for the latest distraction.