The accusation sent shockwaves throughout much of the FBI and the intelligence community. In the span of two tweets, the newly-elected president of the United States had accused his predecessor and federal law enforcement of committing a crime.
The incident set the stage for a narrative Donald Trump and his allies would repeat time again for over two years: the new president was the victim of out of control "deep state" made up of Obama loyalists in government who were actively working to bring Trump down.
On Monday the Justice Department’s independent watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, finally weighed in on these inflammatory allegations when he released his long-awaited report on the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation, code named “Crossfire Hurricane.”
Trump's dubious allegations
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,” wrote President Donald Trump back on March 7, 2017. “Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
A post-mortem of Trump’s claim would later turn up evidence the unsubstantiated allegations began in far-right circles before being amplified by the president to his millions of social media followers.
“How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process,” Trump wrote in a subsequent tweet. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!.”
As I write in my new book, Crossfire Hurricane: Inside Donald Trump’s War on the FBI, this incident would set the stage for Trump’s often tense relationship with federal law enforcement. It was the opening salvo in a campaign of attack against the FBI and Justice Department that would continue throughout the Mueller investigation. The familiar “witch hunt” attack continues to this day as the president faces looming impeachment in the House of Representatives for his dealings with Ukraine.
The rest is noise and spin: The FBI properly, legally investigated 2016 Trump campaign
Although the public is now numb to the president’s full-throated defense strategy it is important to spell out precisely what Trump has claimed. By insisting career law enforcement officials would act on personal political beliefs in conducting an investigation, the president was in effect accusing FBI agents of violating their constitutional oaths. For those sworn to uphold the law, there is no greater slight.
With the release of the DOJ inspector general’s findings, we now know that key tenets of the president’s defense were false. While Trump claimed that the FBI planted a spy in his campaign for political purposes, the IG concluded there was no evidence the bureau placed an informant or undercover agent within the Trump campaign, nor did it task its sources with reporting on the campaign.
The case was opened legitimately
Furthermore, the IG found the Russia case was properly opened and uncovered no “evidence that political bias or improper motivation” influenced the decision to launch the investigation.
Although Trump’s claims about political bias were refuted by the IG, the watchdog’s report is far from a clean bill of health for the FBI. Investigators found serious wrongdoing on the part of mid-level FBI employees in how they gathered evidence, relied on sourcing and provided inaccurate information to a U.S. court in seeking authorization to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
In fact, one former FBI attorney was discovered to have altered a document as part of a surveillance application and now faces possible criminal prosecution for the act. The FBI has to answer for these incidents of wrongdoing and take appropriate action to ensure future abuses do not occur. An agency with such incredible powers must have effective oversight and must reform when wrongdoing is unearthed.
It's about time Peter Strzok sued: Firing him from the FBI was abusive Trump hypocrisy.
That said, the FBI is not alone in the reforms that must now happen. It is equally important for politicians, including the person occupying the highest office in the land, to understand the weight of their words, and the danger to public safety that will result should the political campaign of attack against federal law enforcement succeed.
In order for agencies like the FBI to be effective, they must maintain the confidence of the public they serve. Unfounded conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated allegations of spying serve to chip away at public confidence and make us all less safe.
Josh Campbell is a CNN correspondent and former FBI special agent. He is the author of "Crossfire Hurricane: Inside Donald Trump’s War on the FBI." Follow him on Twitter: @joshcampbell
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DOJ IG Horowitz: Trump's FBI conspiracy theory is false