Insofar as there are parallels between what Pollak, Levin, and Napolitano said and the new story, it looks like luck. None of them claims to have known about the Manafort surveillance—“This was stuff that was being reported and just nobody had really pulled it together,” Pollak said—and it’s all but impossible to believe that they would have withheld such juicy information if they knew it.
The same goes for Trump. Is it possible that he knew of the surveillance on Manafort, either from Manafort himself or from inside the government? Yes, but there are reasons to doubt. When pressed for evidence this spring, he did not cite any such information, instead pointing to Napolitano. It is true that customarily a president would not reveal the existence of a secret wiretap, but Trump has shown no such hesitations. He has casually revealed classified information, including to Russian officials, and if there really had been surveillance ordered by Obama, he would have revealed it in his tweet.
But even though Trump’s claim that Obama was targeting him remains without proof, CNN’s Manafort scoop leaves open the possibility that Trump was caught up in surveillance while speaking with Manafort. CNN was unable to learn the answer, and no other outlets have gotten any further.
That wouldn’t vindicate Trump’s claim, but it would be significant. It could mark the first time that a presidential nominee was swept up in surveillance. It isn’t altogether uncommon for Americans who are not subject to surveillance to be caught up in conversations with targets. When that happens, intelligence officials are required to redact their names, and they can only be revealed if certain officials ask for them to be “unmasked.” The names of some Trump team members are known to have been unmasked by Obama officials, though there’s no sign that Trump was among them. There’s no public evidence that any of those unmaskings were improper.
The idea that intelligence officials might have been listening to Trump is disconcerting from any angle. It’s deeply concerning to think that intelligence officials could have been listening in on Trump, and even more concerning if they had strong and legitimate reasons for doing so.
The prospect of intelligence officials using secretly obtained information for leverage on a president or president-elect is chilling, yet if Manafort, or anyone else around Trump, was in violation of the law—and the FISA court would have approved the warrant only if it decided there was probable cause to believe Manafort was in contact with an agent of a foreign power—they should be prosecuted, and their presence brings into question Trump’s hiring practices and the behavior of his campaign team. There are, of course, serious questions about the actions of several other team members, including Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Carter Page.
It’s also possible that ultimately no one is convicted of any crimes. As yet, there is very little known about why Manafort was under surveillance and what that surveillance found—one of many areas in which speculation about Mueller’s moves far outpace actual facts. In his March tweet, Trump declared, “Nothing found!” Mueller’s investigation will determine whether that claim is any more true than his still-unproven allegation that Obama ordered him surveilled for political reasons.