Once again, Donald Trump has kicked off a media firestorm with a series of early-morning Tweets, this time leveling the serious accusation that “President Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” just prior to the presidential election.
Though Trump asserted he had “just found out” about this surveillance, he appears to be referencing a series of reports that began with a piece by Louise Mensch in Heat Street back in November, which was later corroborated by articles published by The Guardian and the BBC in January. The reports may have come to Trump’s attention by way of a Breitbart story that ran on Friday, summarizing claims of a “Deep State” effort to undermine the Trump administration advanced by conservative talk radio host Mark Levin.

If it were true that President Obama had ordered the intelligence community to “tapp” Trump’s phones for political reasons, that would of course be a serious scandal—and crime—of Nixonian proportions. Yet there’s nothing in the published reports—vague though they are—to support such a dramatic allegation. Let’s try to sort out what we do know.
First, as one would hope Trump is aware, presidents are not supposed to personally order electronic surveillance of particular domestic targets, and the Obama camp has, unsurprisingly, issued a statement denying they did anything of the sort:
Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.
Rather, the allegation made by various news sources is that, in connection with a multi-agency intelligence investigation of Russian interference with the presidential election, the FBI sought an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing them to monitor transactions between two Russian banks and four persons connected with the Trump campaign. The Guardian‘s report alleges that initial applications submitted over the summer, naming “four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials,” were rejected by the FISC. But according to the BBC, a narrower order naming only the Russian banks as direct targets was ultimately approved by the FISC in October. While the BBC report suggests that the surveillance was meant to ferret out “transfers of money,” the Mensch article asserts that a “warrant was granted to look at the full content of emails and other related documents that may concern US persons.”
Taking all these claims with the appropriate sodium chloride seasoning, what can we infer? First, contrary to what many on social media—and even a few reporters for reputable outlets—have asserted, the issuance of a FISA order does not imply that the FBI established probable cause to believe that any Trump associate was acting as an “agent of a foreign power” or engaged in criminal wrongdoing. That would be necessary only if the court had authorized direct electronic surveillance of a United States person, which (if we credit the BBC report) the FISC apparently declined to do. Assuming the initial applications were indeed for full-blown electronic surveillance orders, then the fact that the FBI supposedly did name the Trump associates at first would suggest they may have thought they had such evidence, but one would expect the FISC to apply particularly exacting scrutiny to an application naming persons associated with an ongoing presidential campaign. An application targeting only foreign corporate entities—especially entities openly controlled or directed by the Russian government—would require no such showing, even if the FBI’s ultimate interest were in communications concerning those U.S. persons.