On Saturday, President Donald Trump shook the world by accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election — a scandal comparable to “Nixon/Watergate.” While news outlets reported that Trump cited “no evidence” to support his claims, there is a disturbing trail of breadcrumbs suggesting that the Obama administration did indeed do this.
Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the former president, denied these allegations, but the very denial was disingenuous at best. In fact, one might even call it Orwellian. Here it is:
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. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.
This declaration is disingenuous on at least three levels, as pointed out by National Review‘s David French. First, the process which Obama’s administration allegedly used to wiretap Trump Tower (if indeed it happened) was using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Technically, it is the FISA court which “orders” such surveillance, and the Justice Department (not Obama or the White House) represents the government in proceedings before that court.
“The issue is not whether Obama or some member of his White House staff ‘ordered’ surveillance of Trump and his associates,” French explained. Rather, the important questions are “whether the Obama Justice Department sought such surveillance authorization from the FISA court, and whether, if the Justice Department did that, the White House was aware of or complicit in the decision to do so.” Reports suggest the answer to the first question is yes, and it seems very unlikely, given the explosive nature of this surveillance request, that Obama would not have known about it.
Second, it is a virtual certainty that Obama has ordered surveillance against American citizens — he has even had American citizens killed in drone operations. As French argued, “the notion that Obama would never have an American subject to surveillance is absurd.” Indeed, as he left office, President Obama gave the National Security Agency (NSA) broad powers to spy on Americans.
Finally, FISA national security investigations are significantly different from criminal investigations. The intention is not to build a criminal case, but to gather information about what foreign powers are doing — especially on U.S. soil. It is the president’s prerogative to order surveillance of a potential foreign agent. Nevertheless, as French noted, “it would be a scandal of Watergate dimension if a presidential administration sought to conduct, or did conduct, national-security surveillance against the presidential candidate of the opposition party.”
The Trump administration (and advisor Kellyanne Conway in particular) has taken a great deal of much-deserved flak for supporting “alternative facts,” and twisting the truth to fit its agenda. Indeed, as 2017 opened, George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 hit number one on the Amazon bestseller list.
That book is most famous for the term “doublespeak” — a particularly powerful form of propaganda that deliberately obscures, disguises, or reverses the meaning of words. In 1984, the government destroys language by insisting that “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”
Some of President Trump’s most notorious lies (about the size of his inauguration crowd, for instance), and Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts” to defend them, certainly fall into this category of deceptive propaganda. But Trump and his administration are far from alone in twisting the truth this way. Indeed, Kevin Lewis’ own statement on behalf of Obama shows the telltale signs of doublespeak.
This denial seems expertly crafted to subvert the very real concerns of a Watergate-style scandal. No, Obama did not technically “order” this surveillance, if it occurred. Indeed, he might not have personally ordered the surveillance of any particular American. But this is not the point. Did his administration, under his directive, pursue an investigation which then spied on the presidential candidate of the opposition party? No matter how many intermediate steps are involved, this is still a scandal.
Indeed, Obama and his defenders in the media have engaged in doublespeak time and again. Last November, the then-president declared, “I’m extremely proud of the fact that over 8 years we have not had the kinds of scandals that have plagued other administrations.” Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett said the same thing in January.
I don’t think “scandal” means what these Obama defenders think it means. What about the “Fast & Furious” gun-running scheme, or the hundreds of millions in government grants given to the lying solar firm Solyndra? What about the veterans dying while waiting in line for care at the VA, or the conservative groups targeted for adverse treatment by the IRS? What about Obamacare: the disastrous roll-out, the Orwellian redefinition of a “mandate” as a “tax,” and the disgrace of the U.S. government taking the Little Sisters of the Poor to court?
If somehow Obama and Jarrett can redefine the word “scandal” to exclude all of these terribly embarrassing moments, then President Trump can certainly have his record-breaking inauguration crowd and his “biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.” If a president can get away with dismissing huge scandals like these, Trump should certainly be able to lie to make himself feel better.
And if Obama can get away with engineering surveillance on Trump Tower during the final weeks of the 2016 election, merely by insisting that he himself didn’t give the order, then Trump has enough leeway to say just about anything.
Everyone calling Trump out on his mendacities, saying his presidency is a “new dawn of tyranny,” should at least admit that President Obama has uttered more than a few lies that are just as gut-wrenching. If America is entering a new Orwellian age, it didn’t exactly start with Trump.