That supposed FBI investigation of collusion with the Russians? Never mind . . .
They’re in retreat now. You may have missed it amid President Trump’s startling Saturday tweet storm, the recriminations over president-on-candidate spying, and the Jeff Sessions recusal — a whirlwind weekend. But while you weren’t looking, an elaborate narrative died.
For months, the media-Democrat complex has peddled a storyline that the Putin regime in Russia hacked the U.S. presidential election. There is, of course, no evidence that the election was hacked in the sense that the actual voting process was compromised. Rather, there is evidence that e-mail accounts of prominent Democrats were hacked months before the election, and thousands of those e-mails were published by WikiLeaks in the months leading up to the election.
Into this misleading “Russia hacked the election” narrative, the press and the Dems injected a second explosive allegation — or at least an explosive suspicion that they’ve wanted us to perceive as a credible allegation meriting a serious investigation. The suspicion/allegation is: Not only did Russia hack the election, but there are also enough ties between people in the Trump orbit and operatives of the Putin regime that there are grounds to believe that the Trump campaign was complicit in Russia’s hacking of the election.
Transparently, the aim is to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election victory.
Finally, the third prong, without the support of which the stool would collapse: the impression that the FBI has been feverishly investigating what is said to be the Trump campaign’s collusion in what is said to be the Russian hacking of the election. This reporting is designed to get you saying to yourself: “Why would there be such a zealous investigation by FBI agents — in addition to several other intelligence and law-enforcement agents — unless there really were grave reasons to believe the shocking election-hacking conspiracy narrative?”
Thus, details about investigative activity have been leaked to the media. The press and the Democrats then exploit the leaks to spin the “Trump complicity in Russian election-hacking” story. It seems not to matter how objectively ill-conceived the Russian election-hacking claim is, or how woefully insufficient the purported Trump–Russia ties are to support an inference of campaign collusion in the hacking. The specter of an investigation — breathless media reports of FISA-court applications, wiretaps, surveillance of agents of a foreign power, and mysterious servers; painstaking analysis of shady financial transactions involving Russian banks and funding streams — seems to make the outlandish conspiracy impossible to dismiss out of hand.
A New York Times report perfectly illustrates the three-prong scheme. On January 19, under the alarming headline “Intercepted Russian Communications Part of Inquiry into Trump Associates,” the paper began its report as follows:
WASHINGTON — American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said.
The continuing counterintelligence investigation means that Mr. Trump will take the oath of office on Friday with his associates under investigation and after the intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government had worked to help elect him. As president, Mr. Trump will oversee those agencies and have the authority to redirect or stop at least some of these efforts.
Could what’s going on be more obvious? The Times would have you believe that the Russians “worked to help elect” Trump because the intelligence agencies have said so. With this ballyhooed conclusion as the premise, law-enforcement and intelligence agencies are conducting a “counterintelligence investigation” — meaning that there may be crimes involved, as well as activities of a foreign power in the United States — to determine the nature of links between Russian officials (who, remember, helped elect Trump) and Trump associates connected to the Trump campaign. The probe, we’re further told, is “broad” and includes “intercepted communications” — which, to any informed person, strongly suggests that the FBI went to a federal court and laid out probable cause of improprieties, which prompted one or more judges to authorize wiretaps and potentially other forms of electronic surveillance (e.g., e-mail intercepts).
Is there an innocent interpretation of all this? Of course there is. After all, the underlying allegation of an election-hacking conspiracy between the Putin regime and the Trump campaign is nonsense, so there must necessarily be an innocent interpretation. And, lo and behold, the Times itself provides it — further down in the story, after all the sensational conspiracy mongering:
It is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Mr. Trump’s campaign, or Mr. Trump himself. It is also unclear whether the inquiry has anything to do with an investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers and other attempts to disrupt the elections in November.
See? It is entirely possible that the FBI and other investigative agencies are not pursuing, and have never pursued, a Trump-campaign angle on the hacking. It is entirely possible (though I have doubts about this) that there are no FISA national-security wiretaps directed at Trump associates — maybe the “intercepted communications” touted by the Times came from surveillance targeting Russian operatives whom Trump associates, perhaps unwittingly, happened to run into while doing business that had nothing to do with the campaign. I think, based on all the reporting we’ve seen (some of which, as the Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes observes, is thinly supported), it is more likely that the feds got FISA surveillance authorization for some associates of Trump (the names of Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Carter Page are mentioned). But maybe the probable cause for any such surveillance involved those associates’ own business dealings with Russia — having nothing to do with Trump or the Trump campaign.
But the innocent interpretation, the more likely interpretation, is not what the media and Democrats have wanted us to believe.
For months, they have titillated their audience with the election-hacking conspiracy fantasy. When they cover their behinds by mentioning the possibility of innocence, it is in the fine print.
But still, the media and Democrats have always had a serious vulnerability here — one they’ve never acknowledged because they’ve been too swept away by the political success of the fantasy narrative. It is this: At a certain point, if compelling evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to steal the election did not materialize, the much more interesting question becomes “How did the government obtain all this information that has been leaked to the media to prop up the story?”
The most plausible answer to that question: The Obama administration, through the Justice Department and the FBI, was investigating the associates of the opposition party’s presidential nominee, and perhaps even the nominee himself, during the campaign. Otherwise, what explanation can there be for all of the investigative information — much of it classified, and thus illegal to disclose — that has been funneled to the press?
In short, the media and Democrats have been playing with fire for months. The use of law-enforcement and national-security assets to investigate one’s political opponents during a heated election campaign has always been a potentially explosive story. Let’s not kid ourselves: If the roles were reversed, and a Republican administration had investigated officials tied to the campaign of the Democrats’ nominee, we would be drowning in a sea of Watergate 2.0 coverage.
Well, this weekend, the potentially explosive story detonated. It happened in the now familiar way: jaw-dropping tweets by President Trump.
Given the abundance of indications that the Obama Justice Department scrutinized his campaign, or at least his associates, it was odd that the president chose to tweet the one allegation in the whole mess that appears insupportable — viz., that President Obama had had candidate Trump wiretapped. To my knowledge, no such suggestion has ever been publicly reported. At most, it has been reported (but not proved) that there was a FISA application in June that “named Trump” – but, as I’ve pointed out, saying someone was named in an application does not mean that person was targeted for eavesdropping. And, in any event, the reporting tells us that if there was such an application, the FISA court denied it. Thus, I know of no basis to believe that Trump himself was wiretapped; and if the president’s objective was to sensationalize the story, it would surely have been enough to tweet out a colorable fear that surveillance of him — as a Russian agent — had been proposed.
But was the overstatement slyly intentional? Was Trump trying to make a point?
Maybe not. It is certainly possible that the president was angry and the tweets result from a fit of pique. On the other hand, though, how much crazier is it for Trump to contend that Obama ordered spying on Trump than for the media and Democrats to have contended, for month upon month, that Trump’s campaign conspired with the Putin regime to steal the American presidential election and turn the Oval Office into occupied Kremlin territory?
It is probable that both allegations are ludicrous. There is a good case, though, that there’s more support for the former than the latter.
Here’s the most interesting part: Now that they’ve been called on it, the media and Democrats are gradually retreating from the investigation they’ve been touting for months as the glue for their conspiracy theory. It’s actually quite amusing to watch: How dare you suggest President Obama would ever order surveillance! Who said anything about FISA orders? What evidence do you lunatic conservatives have — uh, other than what we media professionals been reporting — that there was any investigation of the Trump campaign?
You will hear more righteous indignation in the coming days, no doubt. The first brushback pitches came this weekend: the claim that if President Trump dares to demand that the FBI and Justice Department show him the supposed FISA applications, he will be engaged in unprecedented political interference in the independence of law enforcement. It’s a silly assertion; as I explained over the weekend, FISA surveillance is not law enforcement, it is national security. A chief executive who demanded to review FISA information (obtained by exercise of the executive’s power) would be doing his main job — to protect the country — not interfering in a judicial proceeding.
But have you noticed? While all this head-spinning legal jibber-jabber goes back and forth, the foundation of the false narrative we’ve been hearing since November 8 has vanished. Now that we’re supposed to believe there was no real investigation of Trump and his campaign, what else can we conclude but that there was no real evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russia . . . which makes sense, since Russia did not actually hack the election, so the purported objective of the collusion never existed.
Trick or tweet?
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.