Please join me here for my take on recent developments in the ever-more startling and worrying drama of Trump and the Washington swamp. The transcript of my remarks follows below the video.
You know, if I hadn’t seen the unending denial and resistance of those in Britain who are dead against Britain’s exit from the European Union and want to stop it even now, I’d never have believed the extent and nature of the unremitting attempts to delegitimise and unseat in some way President Donald Trump.
Even so, I find those attempts hard to credit. A truly titanic struggle is going on in Washington DC by Trump’s opponents to destroy him – and by Trump himself to fight them off. So far he hasn’t done very well, mainly because… well, he hasn’t yet managed to see off his foes.
Trump has been dogged by persistent claims that he or his campaign team or his circle had alarmingly close connections to President Putin’s Russia. This McCarthyite red scare has been quite something to behold, coming as it has from the left which until now defined itself by its principled opposition to such red-baiting.
But let’s put that particular irony to one side. The fact is that, despite all the heat and noise about this, nothing at all has been found to link the Trump circle improperly to the Russians. The former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who endorsed Hillary Clinton and previously called Donald Trump a dupe of Russia, has said: “On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all. There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.”
You don’t say. But the spark that has become a little flame is evidence that links the Obama administration to improper and possibly even illegal activity in trying to use intelligence-surveillance information against Trump and his circle. Trump claimed that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower shortly before last November’s presidential election. This claim was immediately scorned and held up as yet more proof that Trump lived in a world of alternative reality.
Then something rather extraordinary happened. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, said he had received information from an intelligence whistleblower that members of the intelligence community “incidentally collected” communications from the Trump transition team during legal surveillance operations of foreign targets. This, said Nunes, produced “dozens” of reports which eventually unmasked several individuals’ identities and were “widely disseminated”.
Nunes was promptly accused of Republican partisanship and protecting Trump, particularly since he told the President of this development before telling his committee – although he also said he had told the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, before briefing the President.
The Democrats’ frenzied calls for Nunes to recuse himself as a result increased still further when it emerged that he had met his shadowy source on the White House estate. Proof positive, cried the Democrats, that Nunes had been caught red-handed. Really? Was it ever likely that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee would expose himself to the obvious risk that peddling false information from a tainted source like that would inevitably become known and end his career?
I thought not at the time and wrote as much. And now what do we learn? Fox News has reported there were only two places where Nunes could have viewed this information. One was at the agencies where the information came from, which would have put his source at risk – and the other location was on the White House grounds.
Fox has also claimed that a very senior intelligence official was responsible for surveillance of President Trump’s team which began well before he became the Republican presidential nominee —and that the same senior official was responsible for the unmasking of the names of private American citizens.
“The person who did the unmasking”, said reporter Adam Housley, “is very well known, very high up, very senior in the intelligence world and is not in the FBI. This led to other surveillance which led to multiple names being unmasked. This had nothing to do with Russia, I’m told, or foreign intelligence of any kind… the main issue here is not only the unmasking of the names, but the spreading of names for political purposes that have nothing to do with national security and everything to do with hurting and embarrassing Trump and his team.”
On Sunday Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who himself went to the White House to see the same surveillance documents that Devin Nunes had seen, told CNN he couldn’t say whether anything was “masked or unmasked properly”. Schiff said he remained upset that the documents had not been shared with him before Nunes shared them with the President: and he raised suspicions about the way in which the White House had obtained the information. But the fact that he did not denounce the information as false suggests there is indeed fire behind this particular smoke.
Today on Bloomberg News Eli Lake reports that last month, White House lawyers learned that President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, requested the identities of American individuals in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions connecting to the Trump transition and campaign. The intelligence reports were said to be summaries of monitored conversations – primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials. But under American law, it is illegal to make known or unmask the identities of Americans who are involved in surveillance sweeps but who are not themselves targeted for investigation.
Fox’s Adam Housely says the surveillance of Trump and his circle was carried out for up to a year before the inauguration, and the information was disseminated through NSA channels.
Housely describes this as “unprecedented” and “blockbuster”. I would have though that was something of an understatement.
We still don’t know the truth of all this. But it’s looking more and more that when Trump said on his campaign trail “Drain the swamp” he wasn’t using hyperbole. And that swamp is looking deeper and more poisonous – and a direct threat to the Trump presidency – by the day.