Why the FISA Court Approved Wiretap of Manafort

A leak the other day revealed that prior to his joining the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort was under surveillance pursuant to a warrant issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Susan Hennessey, Shannon Togawa Mercer and Benjamin Wittes explain the details based on the reporting so far.

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First, CNN reported that U.S. government investigators wiretapped Paul Manafort, the onetime Trump campaign chairman, both before and after the 2016 presidential election. According to CNN, the court that provides judicial oversight for the administration of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorized an FBI investigation into Manafort in 2014 focused on “work done by a group of Washington consulting firms for Ukraine’s former ruling party.” Manafort’s firm, among notable others, had failed to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for work with the pro-Russian Ukrainian regime. This first investigation was reportedly halted in 2016 by Justice Department prosecutors because of lack of evidence, but a second warrant was later issued in service of the FBI’s investigation into Russian influence of the election and potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

CNN reported that interest in Manafort was “reignited” because of “intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves.” The FBI also conducted physical searches: one of a storage facility belonging to Manafort and a more widely reported search of his Alexandria home in late July. Manafort was not under surveillance when he became chairman of Trump’s campaign, CNN sources suggested, because of the gap between the two warrants.

While CNN did not report a known start date for the second surveillance period, it suggested that the FBI had already “noticed what counterintelligence agents thought was a series of odd connections between Trump associates and Russia” by the time Manafort left the campaign in August. CNN describes as unclear whether FBI surveillance of Manafort took place while he was residing in Trump Tower, and there is no new evidence in this report to indicate that Donald Trump himself was under surveillance. The Justice Department and the FBI have denied that Trump was subject to wiretapping.

Trump’s defenders are, of course, now claiming that this vindicates his claim that Obama put him and Trump Tower under surveillance during the campaign, but as explained above, this is nonsense. It was Manafort who was under surveillance, not Trump, and it because of his actions in the Ukraine, which were not reported as required by law. That is a solid basis for getting a warrant, which was issued before Manafort had anything to do with Trump for an investigation not related to him.

Later, that investigation picked back up and its nature changed after the surveillance showed a pattern of communications with Russia that suggested possible collusion. Now we don’t know exactly what that evidence is, but Mueller certainly has the transcripts and he is undoubtedly using that as leverage against Manafort to force his cooperation. And we could find out very soon:

The significance of this is that it means that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has reached a critical stage—the point at which he may soon start making allegations in public. Those allegations may involve conduct unrelated to L’Affaire Russe—that is, alleged bad behavior by Manafort and maybe others that does not involve the Trump campaign—but which may nonetheless serve to pressure Manafort to cooperate on matters more central. Or they may involve conduct that involves his behavior with respect to the campaign itself. Note that if Manafort cooperates, we may not see anything public for a long time to come. Delay, that is, may be a sign of success. But in the absence of cooperation, the fireworks may be about to begin.

So don’t be surprised if indictments start coming down soon, likely for Manafort and possibly for Flynn.

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