Fact Check

Did the New York Times Contradict Their 20 January 2017 Report About Wiretapping?

An image showing a New York Times front page was circulated on social media along with statements accusing the publication of contradictory reporting about wiretaps.

Published Mar 8, 2017

 (littleny / Shutterstock.com)
Image Via littleny / Shutterstock.com
The New York Times contradicted their 20 January 2017 report about wire tapping in an article entitled "Trump, Offering No Evidence, Says Obama Tapped His Phones."

In March 2017, several web outlets circulated an image purportedly showing the front page of the 20 January 2017 print edition of the New York Times along with accusations that the newspaper's reporting on President Trump's claims that former President Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower phones had been contradictory:

The front page of The New York Times way back on January 20, 2017… “Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides”

But Two months later they are trashing their own reports!

Now the NY Times is reporting there is no evidence of a wiretap.

No wonder nobody trusts them!

The image is of the Times' front page and its "Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides" is real. It's also true that the New York Times reported about two months later that President Trump had offered no evidence to back up his claim that the Obama administration had tapped his phones. However, these two articles are not contradictory

In order for the New York Times 4 March 2017 report ("Trump, Offering No Evidence, Says Obama Tapped His Phones") to contradict the newspaper's 20 January 2017 report ("Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides"), the paper would have had to have provided evidence (or at least asserted) that the earlier article was based on an Obama administration wiretap of Trump's phones. This, of course, was not the case. 

Although the Janaury article did use the words "wiretapped" and "Trump" in its title, it did not state that Trump Tower telephones were specifically targeted by a wiretap initiated by the Obama administration. Rather, the article stated that intelligence agencies were monitoring Russian officials, and that some of the conversations they intercepted in the course of their investigations may have also involved Trump aides:

Counterintelligence investigations examine the connections between American citizens and foreign governments. Those connections can involve efforts to steal state or corporate secrets, curry favor with American government leaders or influence policy. It is unclear which Russian officials are under investigation, or what particular conversations caught the attention of American eavesdroppers. The legal standard for opening these investigations is low, and prosecutions are rare.

Furthermore, the article stated that it was still unclear if the intercepted communications were linked to the Trump campaign, or Trump himself, at all:

It is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Mr. Trump’s campaign, or Mr. Trump himself. It is also unclear whether the inquiry has anything to do with an investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers and other attempts to disrupt the elections in November. The American government has concluded that the Russian government was responsible for a broad computer hacking campaign, including the operation against the D.N.C.

This article, which was also published online under the title "Intercepted Russian Communications Part of Inquiry Into Trump Associates," was cited in a 3 March 2017 Breitbart report which many pundits believe was the basis for President Trump's wiretap claim again his predecessor. Although radio host Mark Levin collected several reports related to wiretapping and Trump's alleged connections with Russia, no evidence has yet surfaced showing that the Obama administration had initiated a wiretap of Trump Tower phones:

The problem here, of course, is that what Levin — and Breitbart — use as evidence for these claims are a series of seemingly unconnected events — from FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court requests to Trump joking about the Russia email hack, to the release of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails in the fall. The proof that all — or any — of these events are tied together by actual facts as opposed to supposition is not offered.

The White House has offered no further evidence of Trump's claims -- as of this publishing.

Matt Rosenberg, one of the authors of the above-quoted Times article, told CNN's Anderson Cooper that nowhere in his reporting did it state that Trump himself was under surveillance:

Cooper: Does your reporting in any way suggest the claim the president is making that President Obama tapped then-candidate trump's phone?

Rosenberg: Nowhere in this story does it say that. It says that there is a broad investigation based on wiretapped and intercepted communications. It does not say whose communications were intercepted.

I'd also point readers, and something that people conveniently leave out, to another story we published last week on March 1 that explicitly says that much of the communications were Russians talking to Russians. They were hearing about things through those conversations.

Is there a FISA warrant were there wiretaps on Donald Trump or any of his campaign people's phones? I don't know that. We don't know that. If we knew that it would absolutely be in the newspaper.

Cooper: So the communications you were discussing in the article were Russians talking to Russians?

Rosenberg: They are Russians talking to Russians. The communication in the 19th article, I can't get into the sourcing very deeply, But I can tell you absolutely that if we knew at that time or if we knew now that they were monitoring Donald trump's communications, or any of his advisers regularly, and we could say that explicitly, we would be saying that in the newspaper. That is a news story. And the same thing goes with Michael Flynn. They bring up Michael Flynn's communications with the Russian ambassador. He was picked up talking because he was talking to the Russian ambassador whose phone was absolutely monitored. And have been probably monitoring Russian ambassadors for what, 70 years now. That's why [Flynn] was picked up. They weren't tracking Michael Flynn or wiretapping his calls. They were listening to the Russian ambassador and [Flynn] got on the phone with him and started talking and that's why he was heard.

Cooper: I want to read the line from your article that mentions the word 'wiretapping.' It says: 'One official said intelligence reports based on some of the wiretapped communications had been provided to the White House.' Do you have any sense of who was being wiretapped? Was that the Russian-to-Russian communications?

Rosenberg: I want to get careful on that. I don't want to get into who was being wiretapped. But saying that it was 'provided to the White House' is not the same as saying that it was Trump.

And one thing that I want to get clear and something I don't think most people understand is that in most cases when people are on the phone — say two foreign officials are talking about an American — the name of that American is going to be masked. It's going to be blacked out. Only certain people can have it unmasked. Only under certain conditions can it be unmasked. If you need it for context in a security situation you could. People may be able to figure out from context who it is, but the name isn't ordinarily available in reports that are distributed in the intelligence community.

When Rosenberg was pressed on the issue by CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord, he responded that "only the most obtuse misreading" of the article would lead one to conclude that Donald Trump was under surveillance.


Stelter, Brian.   "Birth of a Conspiracy Theory: How Trump's Wiretap Claim Got Started."     CNN.com.   6 March 2017.

Cillizza, Chris.   "Donald Trump Was a Conspiracy-Theory Candidate. Now He’s on the Edge of Being a Conspiracy-Theory President."     the Washington Post.   4 March 2017.

Shear, Michael.   "Trump, Offering No Evidence, Says Obama Tapped His Phones."     The New York Times.   4 March 2017.

Schmidt, Michael.   "Intercepted Russian Communications Part of Inquiry Into Trump Associates."     The New York Times.   19 January 2017.

Pollak, Joel.   "Mark Levin to Congress: Investigate Obama’s ‘Silent Coup’ vs. Trump."     Breitbart.   3 March 2017.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

Read More

a Member

Your membership is the foundation of our sustainability and resilience.


Ad-Free Browsing on Snopes.com
Members-Only Newsletter
Cancel Anytime