Is there any evidence to support Trump's wiretapping claims?

The US President made serious allegations about his predecessor Barack Obama over the weekend...

Is there any evidence to support Trump's wiretapping claims?

President Donald Trump speaks while aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, Thursday, March 2, 2017. Picture by: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Press Association Images

Even by his own standards, Donald Trump's allegation this weekend was astounding.

In a series of tweets early on Saturday morning, President Trump referenced "the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October" - a serious and unprecedented allegation from a sitting president about his predecessor.

"How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!" he added.

The allegation - which, if true, would indeed be a political scandal of an historic scale - was swiftly denied by a spokesperson for the former president.

"A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice," the statement explained. "As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen."

Indeed, as The New York Times explains, it is 'not legally' possible for a US President to order the wiretapping of an American.

Other US government officials & agencies do have methods of securing surveillance of citizens - but they must get an order from a federal judge.

Is there any evidence to support the claims?

As is now a familiar trend with some of Trump's boldest claims, little evidence or context was offered to back up the allegations - similar, in a sense, to his repeated insistence that millions of people voted illegally in the US (no evidence has yet come to light to support such an allegation).

While it is certainly possible that President Trump has access to information that is not in the public domain, follow-up statements from the White House were a little more cautious in their language than Trump's explosive allegations.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said: "Reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling. President Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016."

That reference to 'reports' perhaps gives us a better insight into the source of President Trump's 'fact'.

Picture by Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP/Press Association Images

Media reports

Back in November, Louis Mensch of the British site Heat Street published an article suggesting a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant had been granted. The warrant reportedly granted counter-intelligence services "permission to examine the activities of ‘US persons’ in Donald Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia".

The order is said to have allowed officials to "look at the full content of emails and other related documents that may concern US persons".

The Heat Street article followed previous reports that a computer server in Trump Tower was connected to a Russian bank. The New York Times has previously suggested that the FBI believed there could be a simple, "innocuous explanation" behind the server link - such as marketing or email purposes - and that ultimately the agency "sees no clear link to Russia".

Subsequent reports, however, have seemed to substantiate elements of the reports about the warrant. The BBC, for example, earlier this year reported that, only three weeks before the November election, US officials were granted an order to intercept electronic records of two Russian banks - after a previous application was rejected.

"Neither Mr Trump nor his associates are named in the [FISA] order, which would only cover foreign citizens or foreign entities - in this case the Russian banks," the BBC notes. "But ultimately, the investigation is looking for transfers of money from Russia to the United States, each one, if proved, a felony offence."

All these reports came amid the planned 'loosening' of rules regarding sharing of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance data, which eventually came into effect late in the Obama presidency.

'Deep state'

These reports and developments have led some conservative commentators to speculate that the Obama administration was attempting a 'silent coup' against Trump, and that the US 'deep state' (a term used to refer to powerful 'shadow' forces within a government) has been working to undermine the Trump administration through media leaks in particular.

Last Friday, the right-wing Breitbart News site - previously run by Steve Bannon, currently a senior aide to Mr Trump - published an article summarising many of the claims.

It concluded that "the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign" and that they "continued monitoring the Trump team even when no evidence of wrongdoing was found".

Stephen Bannon. Image: Gerald Herbert / AP/Press Association Images

However, Washington-based journalist Julian Sanchez argues on the Just Security blog: "None of this is really supported by the public record. First, the attribution of whatever monitoring occurred to the 'Obama administration' insinuates a degree of involvement by the White House or its political appointees for which there is no evidence. 'Eavesdrop' implies surveillance of telephone conversations, which do not appear to have been the focus of the FISC order."

He adds: "In short, both Breitbart and Trump have advanced claims far more dramatic than anything the public evidence can support. That said, intelligence monitoring—whether direct or indirect—of persons connected with a presidential campaign inherently carries a high risk of abuse."

Regardless of their accuracy, these reports could help explain the origins of Mr Trump's Twitter allegations - the Washington Post has even reported that the story from Breitbart News was 'circulated at the White House's highest levels in recent days'.

Diversionary tactic? 

An alternative possibility is that Mr Trump is simply engaging in one of his favourite tactics: attempting to sway the news agenda. In a week which saw further concerns raised about his campaign's alleged links and contacts with Russia, the US President may have been trying to change the focus of media coverage.

As Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi argued: "Misdirection is a tool of authoritarians. [The President] must stop trying to distract Americans from the very real issues our country faces."

Ultimately, it is perhaps only Donald Trump who really knows what Donald Trump is thinking, such is his continued rejection of presidential norms. The allegations are certainly serious enough to warrant investigation, and as previously mentioned would be a major scandal if found to be accurate.

However, currently there is little in the way of evidence to support any suggestion that Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump's phones - which is not to say there was no surveillance taking place.

We're likely to hear plenty more about this story in the coming weeks & months, and some light will hopefully be shone on the accuracy or inaccuracy of these extraordinary allegations.