Politics & Policy

Trump’s Wiretap Allegation Was a Self-Inflicted Wound

(Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
The White House is quickly discovering that the rest of the government won’t back up any old accusation the president levels.

Can a bombshell be completely expected? Testifying in front of Congress this morning, FBI Director James Comey said he has seen no evidence to support President Trump’s accusation, first leveled weeks ago on Twitter, that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 general election: “We don’t have any information that supports those tweets,” he declared flatly.

By refusing, over and over again, to back down from Trump’s original, farfetched charge, his administration has inflicted a lot of completely unnecessary damage upon itself, and even upon the so-called special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. This is what happens when the White House prioritizes winning the daily news cycle above all else. This is the natural result of an amazingly shortsighted approach to governing.

Recall that all this began, as so many Trump controversies do, with an early morning tweet:

From the words, “just found out,” one would think that the evidence for such an extraordinary accusation was forthcoming. After all, Trump is now the president. At any moment he can call the FBI Director, the NSA director, or anyone else into his office and ask, “What is the meaning of this?” He can declassify anything he likes — logs, records, transcripts — particularly if it exposes criminal behavior by government officials. When he made his shocking charge, he was in the best possible position to back it up.

Within a day, President Obama and former director of national intelligence James Clapper had denied that they or anyone else in the Obama administration wiretapped candidate Trump. By March 15, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, a Republican who worked on Trump’s transition team, had declared, “We don’t have any evidence that that took place. . . . I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”

The same day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied that he had ever briefed Trump on any ”investigations related to the campaign” or “give[n] him any reason to believe that he was wiretapped by the previous administration.” Later that evening, Trump did an interview with Tucker Carlson, in which he suddenly sounded as if the whole matter was too sensitive to discuss publicly: “I’m not going to discuss it, because we have it before the committee and we will be submitting things before the committee very soon that [haven’t] been submitted as of yet. But it’s potentially a very serious situation.”

Trump kept insisting that at some point, other sources would be verifying his claims. “We will be submitting certain things and I will be perhaps speaking about this next week,” he said. “But it’s right now before the committee, and I think I want to leave it. I have a lot of confidence in the committee.”

The very next day, the two leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Mark Warner, put out a joint statement: “Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.”

That seems like a pretty definitive blanket rejection of Trump’s accusation. Instead of pushing back against it, the administration chose to change its story. Back on March 14, ten days after Trump’s initial tweet, Andrew Napolitano of Fox News had offered a new version of events that suggested there was no American surveillance of the Trump campaign. Napolitano implicated our closest ally instead:

Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ. What is that? It’s the initials for the British intelligence-finding agency.

By Thursday, Sean Spicer was reading Napolitano’s accusation aloud at the White House press briefing, giving it the government’s stamp of approval. By Friday, Fox News had backed away from the claim, in a statement by anchor Shepard Smith:

Judge Andrew Napolitano commented on the morning show Fox and Friends that he has sources who say British intelligence . . . was involved in surveillance at Trump Tower. Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary. Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way, full stop.

Catherine Herridge, Jennifer Griffin, James Rosen, Eric Shawn, Shannon Bream, Ed Henry — all well-connected Fox News reporter, with lots of sources throughout government — were unable to confirm the accusation. Sky News, the U.K. partner of Fox News, came up empty as well.

By Friday afternoon, Trump was acting as if the White House could repeat others’ accusations against allied intelligence agencies without consequence:

We said nothing — all we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make any opinion on it. That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox and so you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox, okay?

Many in the British government are rightly outraged by the entire episode, which has put the deputy director of the National Security Agency in the awkward position of denying allegations repeated by the White House press secretary:

The claim that GCHQ carried out surveillance on Donald Trump during the election campaign is “arrant nonsense,” Rick Ledgett, the number two at the US National Security Agency (NSA) has told the BBC in an exclusive interview.

The U.S.-U.K. relationship has taken a hit because of the administration’s adamant insistence that the president’s accusation had to be true, despite a complete lack of corroborating evidence.

The heart of the accusation is that Obama and his inner circle were determined to learn what was being said at the highest levels of the Trump campaign. But it’s worth remembering that the Obama White House was so convinced Hillary Clinton was going to win, it declined to make a stink about Russia’s meddling in the campaign:

The Obama administration didn’t respond more forcefully to Russian hacking before the presidential election because they didn’t want to appear to be interfering in the election and they thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win and a potential cyber war with Russia wasn’t worth it, multiple high-level government officials told NBC News.

“They thought she was going to win, so they were willing to kick the can down the road,” said one U.S official familiar with the level of Russian hacking.

Maybe during his decades as a star of the New York tabloids, Trump came to believe that he could get out of trouble by making outrageous counter-accusations against his tormentors. Maybe in that realm, his belief was well founded. But the rules are different when you’re president. The commander in chief cannot publicly accuse anyone, much less his predecessor, of criminal wrongdoing and expect that the accusation won’t be investigated. The White House press secretary cannot suggest that an allied intelligence agency spied on American citizens for political reasons and expect that the rest of the world won’t sit up, take notice, and demand proof.

With every such unsubstantiated accusation, the administration loses a bit of credibility that it will need when it makes an accurate charge. Unless it wants to spend the next four years perceived as the boy who cried wolf, the White House should show more regard for the truth going forward.

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