Trump’s tweet accusing “President Obama” of tapping Trump’s phones is ingenious in its own, very Trumpian way. In ordinary speech, we attribute actions to the “president” that are actually those of his subordinates. Obama is responsible for everything that took place in the executive branch during his administration except clearly rogue behavior, and even then he was (and is) expected to take responsibility and (while still in office) ensure that it does not recur. Of course, “President Obama” also means the man himself. Trump characteristically exploits this ambiguity for maximum rhetorical impact.
The response of former Obama administration officials—that the White House did not “authorize” wiretaps—is itself characteristic of a certain type of political rhetoric. One might call it Clintonian. Legalistic and precise to a fault, yet fundamentally misleading. The surveillance (whatever form it took, which is not yet clear) was very likely authorized by the Attorney General, a high-level Obama appointee. The Attorney General is not a “White House official” but is loyal to the White House. Her involvement therefore raises questions about political interference with an election.
The real question is whether the initial authorization was justified, given the political implications. The law is straightforward. Once the FBI learned about possibly illegal contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials, it could with justification launch an investigation. It wasn’t even necessary to suspect a crime; the fear that the Russians were trying to influence the election was sufficient to launch a counterintelligence operation. And then once that investigation was in place, applications to the FISA court for surveillance authorization followed as a matter of course. The legal standard is low.
But the law does not exhaust the issue. The political question is paramount: under what circumstances should the government be allowed to engage in surveillance of members of a political campaign that opposes the government? A plausible first answer: if the republic is in danger, but not otherwise. The risk that an investigation will be based on plausible but ultimately spurious considerations is significant. Was the Trump investigation absolutely necessary in order to prevent harm, or was it instead an immensely attractive way of acquiring leakable information about Trump, to be used when needed.
It is easy to ridicule Trump for his clumsy, McCarthyite tactics, his reckless use of language and his typos. Easier still to wish he, or someone else in government, raised these issues in a responsible way.
But it’s wrong to dismiss these issues–whether an investigation of an ongoing presidential campaign, even if justifiable in a legal sense, can be politically justified . They go to the heart of democracy. This has become a pattern. Trump’s critics act as if by ridiculing his manner of communication, they also defeat the underlying argument that he is making. (Remember “seriously but not literally”?) Big mistake, both politically and as as a matter of policy.