Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told a group of reporters on Monday that there was no evidence to suggest that President Obama had tapped the phones at Trump Tower before the 2016 election, as the president has claimed. So does that mean that President Trump was wrong when he very explicitly said on Twitter that this had happened? Apparently, like all great works of fiction, Trump’s tweets allow readers to reach their own interpretations. Here is how Nunes said we should view those tweets:
You have to decide, as I mentioned to you last week, are you going to take the tweets literally, and if you are, then clearly the president was wrong. If you’re not going to take the tweets literally and if there’s a concern that the president has about other people, other surveillance activities, looking at him or his associates, either appropriately or inappropriately, we want to find that out. I think it’s all in the interpretation of what you believe.
Let’s have a look at the tweets in question and attempt to take them both literally and nonliterally:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
To review, Trump was reportedly referring to a Breitbart article aggregating claims by the radio host Mark Levin that there was an ongoing campaign by Obama to undermine the Trump presidency. This included reference to a November article on the website Heat Street reporting that the FBI had been granted authorization by the FISA court to examine ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, specifically a server in Trump Tower that was allegedly exchanging data with a Russian bank. (This report was based on an anonymous source and has yet to be confirmed independently, but other outlets have corroborated some, if not all of the details.) There’s a lot we don’t know about the possible authorization and what sort of surveillance it may or may not have covered, but none of the reporting, including that by Heat Street, has suggested that Obama personally ordered a tap on the phones in Trump Tower.
By saying “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ ” could Trump mean, as some administration officials have suggested, not Barack Hussein Obama himself, but the Obama administration, which included the Justice Department? No. If that were what he meant, why would he call Obama himself a “bad (or sick) guy”? Why would he compare it to Watergate, a scandal that specifically involved White House complicity in bugging an opposing campaign?
By “wires tapped” and “tapp my phones,” could he have meant not that his phone calls were actually being monitored, but that a server of his had been monitored as per the Heat Street report? No. Trump knows what a phone is.
Maybe he was referencing law enforcement agencies’ broader surveillance of his campaign’s alleged contacts with Russia? No. In the first tweet, Trump refers specifically to Trump Tower, a real physical building, and to “my wires” and “my phones” within that building.
Moreover, it had already been reported for weeks that the communications of members of the Trump campaign had been monitored, so the words “just found out,” which can be taken to mean “very recently discovered,” would indicate that was not what he was referring to. In fact, the Justice Department told the White House in January that it had monitored Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States and Trump ultimately asked Flynn to resign for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about those contacts. The FISA story had also been reported for weeks, but less widely. It’s more plausible to think that Trump hadn’t seen it until it was on Breitbart, the site previously operated by his top aide.
We could maybe choose to believe, as Nunes suggests we do, that in Trump’s tweets, “tapp my phones,” refer to a broad range of possible surveillance activities that may not even involve phones or wires and that Obama, like Louis XIV before him, was the physical manifestation of the American state and all its institutions such that the badness and sickness of those institutions were embodied within him.
Or, maybe Trump was wrong.