Donald Trump's extraordinary and unsubstantiated accusation that Barack Obama ordered the tapping of his phones before the November election raises three possible scenarios, each of which have serious implications for his young presidency.
The first is that Mr Obama illegally ordered surveillance on the Trump campaign. The second is that the FBI obtained a warrant for surveillance from a special intelligence court (Fisa), implying some level of evidence of contact between Trump associates and Russian officials. Either, according to Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican senator, would amount to "the biggest scandal since Watergate". Mr Graham has vowed to ascertain the truth about what he described as "earth-shattering" charges.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia politics expert, alluded to the third scenario – that Mr Trump was once again making up facts – saying: "Claiming Obama bugged him is an extremely serious charge. Trump needs to put up or shut up."
Some Republicans have privately told associates that they are worried about Mr Trump's state of mind. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. David Frum, former White House speech writer to George W Bush, tweeted that one possibility was "Trump is flipping into an outright personality breakdown in full public view".
The White House said yesterday it would not comment on the claim until congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the election determined if “executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016”.
Mr Trump's allegations were challenged when James Clapper, who was director of national intelligence in the final years of the Obama administration, revealed that there had been no wiretap that involved the Trump campaign. But he told NBC News that he had seen no evidence during his tenure that the Trump campaign had colluded in some way with the Kremlin.
Obama’s ‘police state’
Some experts believe that Mr Trump was tweeting in response to a story that Breitbart News, a right-wing news website, ran on Friday about a conservative radio host who wanted Mr Trump to investigate Mr Obama’s “police state” tactics. It referred to older stories that claimed the FBI made two requests – one unsuccessful and another successful – to the Fisa court. Mr Trump appeared to refer to the issue when he tweeted: “Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”
As Mr Trump continues to attack anyone who raises questions about his team and their potential ties with Russia, one key question is whether Democrats and Republicans will unite in calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the relationship between the president and his campaign officials and the Kremlin.
While Democrats are using the issue to hammer Mr Trump, Republicans are worried that the Russia scandal – and the president’s related comments on Twitter – are hampering their efforts to push through their legislative agenda.
Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican senator who has been a Trump critic, described the situation as a "civilisation-warping crisis of public trust". He said the president needed to explain the background to his allegations. "If there were wiretaps . . . then it was either with Fisa court authorisation or without such authorisation," said Mr Sasse. "If without, the president should explain what sort of wiretap it was and how he knows this. If it was with a legal Fisa court order, then an application for surveillance exists that the court found credible."
Many national security experts said it was unlikely that Mr Obama would have requested a Fisa warrant, and that any such move would have provoked a backlash against political interference by law enforcement officials.
"Theoretically it's possible for a president to pressure the FBI and Justice Department to request a warrant, but Fisa was designed in the first place to check this sort of abuse," said Matthew Waxman, a national security law expert at Columbia University. "Trump's allegations probably say more about his own beliefs about a president's powers than anything that really happened."
Mieke Ouyang, a national security expert at the Third Way think tank, said the tweets showed Mr Trump did not understand the Fisa process, including that requests were made by law enforcement officials and not the White House.
“If there’s a wiretap, the FBI and a judge thought there was something to it,” she said. “If president Obama tried to order a wiretap without going through that process, there’s no way either law enforcement or the phone companies would comply.”
Cindy Cohn, an expert on surveillance who runs the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for civil liberties, said the intelligence community had such powers that Mr Trump should not be immediately dismissed as completely off base. "It is a big problem for the country if Trump tweets this out and nobody knows [what's true]," she said.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)