It’s important to be on guard against political interference in justice, and Justice, by either party. As I have written, the FBI has historically done much to erode public trust in its behavior, though the bureau’s agency is usually not to either party but very specifically to protecting its own prerogatives. But even without his label-interference-now-and-seek-evidence-later approach, the president has long since forfeited the benefit of the doubt on accusations of political revenge against him.
Trump has repeatedly cried wolf—claiming wiretaps, malicious “unmasking” in intelligence, improper requests for warrants, and now political spying inside his campaign. In the first three cases, each claim has quickly petered out.
In March 2017, Trump made this claim:
This was an astonishing charge to make, and if true, it would have been a horrifying abuse of power on the part of Barack Obama. But it turned out to be bogus, setting up a pattern that has repeated since. The president does not have the power to order wiretaps. Trump’s claim turned out to be based on speculation filtered through several conservative pundits. And Trump’s own Justice Department declared there had been no such wiretap.
Undeterred, the White House leapt on a claim from Representative Devin Nunes that figures in the Obama administration—perhaps National-Security Adviser Susan Rice—had improperly “unmasked,” or revealed the names, of members of the Trump campaign inadvertently surveilled in conversation with targets of invesitgations. (The names of American persons who are inadvertently surveilled are customarily redacted, but they can be revealed under special request.) It turned out that one reason the White House was so eager to hype the claim was that National Security Council staffers had fed it to Nunes in the first place. In any case, Rice denied the claim, senators of both parties concluded it was without merit, and Trump and his allies have largely dropped it as a talking point.
Then in September, several outlets reported that Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman in the summer of 2016, had been surveilled by the FBI both before and after the election. (Mueller has since indicted Manafort on a range of charges, including massive money-laundering, not connected to the campaign. Manafort says he is innocent.) Some Trump allies argued that the news vindicated Trump, but, as I explained in detail at the time, it did not.
Early this year, the cycle repeated itself again with a memo attributed to Nunes that emerged from the GOP side of the House Intelligence Committee, centering in particular on the process for obtaining a warrant to surveil Page. Trump declassified the memo, clearing the way for its release, and once again argued that the new document vindicated his claims and showed that the entire Russia investigation was a witch hunt. But it quickly became clear that the Nunes memo was full of holes, misrepresentations, and elisions, even before the release of a memo from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee further picked it apart.