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The 45th presidentMaking sense of Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated accusations against his predecessor
There are three explanations for Mr Trump’s accusation that Barack Obama ordered his phones to be tapped. None of them is comforting
Democracy in America
Mar 5th 2017
American democracy has suffered a wound that, however it heals, will leave nasty scars. On March 5th the White House announced that President Donald Trump is asking congressional intelligence committees to probe unspecified “reports” that the administration of Barack Obama abused its executive powers to launch, “potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election”.
The formal White House statement was, in effect, an attempt to comb the hair and clothe in a suit and tie a string of four wild and unsubstantiated tweets by the president of America. In those tweets, issued around dawn the day before, the 45th president accused the 44th of a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to tap the phones at Trump Tower, his campaign and business headquarters in New York. This alleged wire-tapping was an attempt to meddle in the “very sacred election process”, and shows Mr Obama to be a “bad (or sick) guy!” charged Mr Trump. “Nothing” was found by this spying, he added, concluding: “This is McCarthyism!”
There are a number of explanations for Mr Trump’s allegations, none of them cheering. The first is that Mr Trump’s stated suspicions are well-founded, and Mr Obama and his administration did, in fact, illegally spy on the nominee of one of the two main political parties.
Mark Levin, a conservative media firebrand, is said to have provoked Mr Trump’s outburst with a broadcast on March 2nd. Mr Levin cited a series of news reports from 2016 and 2017 that federal investigators at various times sought warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) to monitor communications involving Mr Trump and several of his advisers, seeking evidence of potentially troubling business or espionage ties with Russia. Mr Levin called this “police state” tactics and suggested that Congress should probe this “silent coup” by the Obama administration, rather than allegations that Russia interfered in the election. Mr Levin’s show was later written up by the right-wing website Breitbart News, whose former chairman, Stephen Bannon, is now Mr Trump’s chief strategist. Roger Stone, a flamboyant political operative and informal adviser to Mr Trump, declared: “The buck stops here. Obama responsible for illegal surveillance of @realDonaldTrump—must be charged, convicted and jailed.”
The second explanation is that the FBI or other federal investigators legally spied on Trump Tower, the Trump campaign or figures close to the president. The bar for obtaining a FISA warrant is high—typically requests come from the attorney-general, a deputy attorney-general or the head of a spy agency, and must show a federal judge that there is probable cause that a target for surveillance is an “agent of a foreign power”. A spokesman for Mr Obama pushed back hard at Mr Trump’s claim that the former president, or his White House team ordered such surveillance, saying “neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen”, adding that it was a “cardinal rule” of the Obama White House not to interfere in any investigation led by the Department of Justice.
In an intervention that did little to unfurrow the brows of those following this tale, James Clapper, who was until January the Director of National Intelligence, told NBC television that he knew of no FISA warrants against Trump Tower, at least for the spy agencies that he oversaw. “There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign,” he said. Mr Clapper added that he stands by his formal finding, issued in January, that the Russian government meddled in the presidential election to help Mr Trump, but said he had seen no evidence of active collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians.
A third explanation for Mr Trump’s outburst is that he was trying to rally his supporters and discomfort his opponents after a bumpy few days, once again involving furtive contacts between Team Trump and Russians. This time the problem involved Mr Trump’s attorney-general and ideological mentor, Jeff Sessions. To Mr Trump’s semi-public fury Mr Sessions felt obliged to recuse himself from overseeing federal investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. This decision to step aside from any probes came after Mr Sessions had to concede that his testimony to senators during his confirmation hearings had some large holes in it, roughly the same size and shape as Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s burly ambassador to America. Sleuthing by the Washington Post and other news outlets revealed that Mr Sessions met Mr Kislyak twice during the campaign, despite telling senators he had “no communications with the Russians”.
Under this theory of events, Mr Trump’s dramatic tweets bring to mind the owner of a Chicago speakeasy, who while being questioned by G-Men about why so many Mob bosses drink at his establishment, bellows: “FIRE!” and pulls the fire alarm. For when Mr Trump’s tactics are examined coolly, his claims of treachery by Mr Obama are a way to make Americans focus on a large, invented allegation—that Democrats, the media and other “enemies of the people” are conspiring to destroy or at least delegitimise his presidency. In fact, the allegations about Russia that continue to dog Mr Trump are narrower but still troubling.
In a world of political smoke and mirrors, here are some things that definitely happened. During the presidential election campaign Mr Trump repeatedly broke with Republican Party orthodoxy to advocate friendlier ties with the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, in part because Mr Putin had the good judgement to praise Mr Trump (“Putin called me a genius” Mr Trump noted at rallies), and in part because Russia might, in his words, be willing to “knock the hell” out of the Islamic State extremist group in Syria and other theatres of war, sparing America much blood and treasure.
During the summer of 2016 WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of e-mails stolen from the servers of the Democratic National Committee and from the e-mail account of the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. American officials accused Russian hackers of being behind these leaks, as did Mrs Clinton but Mr Trump poured scorn on such claims, calling them an attempt to smear him, and wondering whether the hacker might be somebody “sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”. In a press conference in July, Mr Trump invited Russia—“if you’re listening”—to search e-mail servers belonging to Mrs Clinton or government archives and find thousands of e-mails that the Democrat had deleted as private, after leaving her post as Mr Obama’s secretary of state. Mr Trump later said that this was a joke.
These events are beyond dispute. Lots of e-mails embarrassing to Mrs Clinton were stolen and appeared online, to Mr Trump’s public glee: “I love WikiLeaks”, he said in October. Someone hacked them, and after a lot of havering around Mr Trump, in January of this year, did at last say he believes that the culprit is Russia. Mr Trump gave Russian officials ample reason to think that their country might benefit from his election.
If so much smoke still swirls, it is because it remains unclear whether a natural coincidence of interests between Russia and Team Trump was buttressed by actual collusion. The Trump administration has suffered some of its worst early blows as a result of obfuscation around Russia. Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general, had to resign as Mr Trump’s first national security adviser after misleading the vice-president, Mike Pence, among others, about his own contacts with Mr Kislyak. Though he initially denied any substantive contacts, it emerged that Mr Flynn had spoken to the ambassador several times in late December, urging Russia to be patient and not to retaliate after Mr Obama imposed sanctions on Russians as punishment for election meddling.
Trump partisans are currently lining up behind their man. But to return to that analogy with a Chicago bar-owner trying to avoid tough questioning, Mr Trump may be about to discover that when you pull a fire alarm in a crowded beer-hall, there are real-world consequences, some of them hard to control.
Though most Republicans remain intent on passing long-cherished bills and sending them to Mr Trump’s desk for signing, some members of his party are already signalling disquiet. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a thoughtful and principled conservative, issued a statement saying: “We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the president’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots. A quest for the full truth, rather than knee-jerk partisanship, must be our guide if we are going to rebuild civic trust and health.” A member of the Senate intelligence committee, Marco Rubio of Florida, told NBC television he had seen “no evidence” to back Mr Trump’s claims. “The president put that out there, and now the White House will have to answer as to exactly what he was referring to,” said Mr Rubio.
The Florida senator is correct. In coming days the White House will have to explain what the president meant in his early-morning tweets on Saturday. Some observers felt that Mr Trump himself seemed to tire of his own outburst, tweeting his thoughts about a casting change on a reality-television show some 30 minutes after accusing his predecessor of something close to treason. Others see sincere rage, even paranoia. A conservative media boss and old friend of Mr Trump’s, Chris Ruddy, claims that the president believes his own allegations about wire-tapping with a fierce rage, telling him this weekend: “I will be proven right”.
Either way, the president has told his country and the world that American democracy came under a serious attack. He cannot now wish that charge away.
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