The Trump administration is in the throes of one of the greatest self-inflicted distractions of the modern presidency.
The latest chapter comes from James Comey in highly anticipated congressional testimony. The FBI director said that he has no information to support President Trump’s infamous weekend tweets alleging he was wiretapped by President Obama during the campaign. This was treated as a bombshell, although what would have been truly surprising is if he said Trump’s allegations had a sound factual basis.
Every administration gets knocked off its game early on by something. What makes the furor over President Trump’s wiretapping claims so remarkable is how unnecessary it is. The flap didn’t arise from events outside of the administration’s control, nor was it a clever trap sprung by its adversaries. The president went out of his way to initiate it. He picked up his phone and tweeted allegations that he had no idea were true or not, either to distract from what he thought was a bad news cycle, or to vent, or both.
The fallout has proved that there is no such a thing as “just a tweet” from the most powerful man on the planet. Trump’s aides have scrambled to find some justification for the statements after-the-fact and offended an age-old foreign ally in the process (White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested it was British intelligence that might have been monitoring Trump); congressional leaders have become consumed with the matter; and it has dominated news coverage for weeks. Such is the power of a couple of blasts of 140 characters or less from the president of the United States.
The flap has probably undermined Trump’s political standing, and at the very least has diverted him and his team from much more important work on Capitol Hill, where his agenda will rise or fall. In an alternative and more conventional universe, the White House would be crowing over Judge Gorsuch’s testimony before Congress. Instead it is jousting with the FBI director over wayward tweets.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was reduced to arguing that Comey’s categorical rejection of the wiretapping claim was only provisional. Let’s not jump to conclusions, etc., etc. Such is the life of a press secretary when his boss has the power to make him defend the indefensible during a few thoughtless moments alone with his phone. Since the wiretapping allegations, Spicer’s days have been spent in the semantics, air quotes, and epistemological gymnastics necessary to support Trump’s claims.
Only President Trump can make it stop. He has shown, despite his unwillingness ever to admit error, an ability over the last year to simply drop and move on from counterproductive controversies. He should do the same with his wiretapping tweets. All he has to say is that he accepts his FBI director’s statement and that he doesn’t want to talk about it any more. That would immediately drain some of the headline-grabbing drama from it, and relieve his underlings from their current exertions.
Comey’s second bombshell was the more consequential one. He confirmed that there is an ongoing FBI investigation of Russia’s role in the election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. (It may eventually emerge that some of Trump’s conversations were picked up when people in his orbit were being surveilled in this probe, providing a figleaf of vindication for his tweets.) It’s hard to see why the Russians would have had to involve Trump associates in what should have been a simple two-step process: 1) hack Democratic accounts; 2) give the resulting information to WikiLeaks. But Comey’s acknowledgement of the investigation will stoke the darkest suspicions of the Left.
All the more reason for Trump to avoid doubling down on unforced errors. They are plenty of people who want to distract and damage his administration. The president of the United States shouldn’t be one of them.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2017 King Features Syndicate