Politicians say things, and in the April before the election, and long before the nominating convention – when everyone thought that Donald Trump was a buffoon who didn’t stand a chance at winning either, after he unexpectedly won a string of primaries – Donald Trump said this:
His Tuesday night victory speech at Trump Tower in New York City was brief, relatively subdued, and relatively on-message. The roughly ten-minute speech was a far, far cry from the night in March when he celebrated primary wins by hawking Trump steaks, Trump wine and threw a Trump magazine into the crowd of supporters who had gathered at his lush Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
According to a series of interviews Trump has given in recent days, the speech was part of a broader pivot to a more, well, traditional presidential campaign. “The campaign is evolving and transitioning, and so am I,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I’ll be more effective and more disciplined.”
Trump put it another way during a Thursday morning appearance on NBC’s Today Show. “I will be so presidential,” he said, “you will be so bored. You’ll say, ‘Can’t he have a little more energy?'”
Politicians make promises, sometimes to calm down the wary – they’re not really crazy – but as Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman report, sometimes they actually are crazy:
It began at 6 p.m. Thursday as a conspiratorial rant on conservative talk radio: President Barack Obama had used the “instrumentalities of the federal government” to wiretap the Republican seeking to succeed him. This “is the big scandal,” Mark Levin, the host, told his listeners.
By Friday morning, the unsubstantiated allegation had been picked up by Breitbart News, the site once headed by President Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. Less than 24 hours later, the president embraced the conspiracy in a series of Twitter posts accusing his predecessor of spying on him, setting in motion the latest head-spinning, did-he-really-say-that furor of Mr. Trump’s six-week-old presidency.
Previous presidents usually measured their words to avoid a media feeding frenzy, but Mr. Trump showed again over the weekend that he feeds off the frenzy. Uninhibited by the traditional protocols of his office, he makes the most incendiary assertions based on shreds of suspicion. He does so without consulting some of his most senior aides, or even agencies of his own government that might have contrary information. After setting off a public firestorm with no proof, he then calls for an investigation to find the missing evidence.
No one was bored – not even his senior aides and certainly not the agencies of what is now his own government. No one saw this coming. No one knew what he was talking about, but no one should have been surprised:
This was hardly the first time Mr. Trump made a shocking accusation without evidence. He claimed that more than three million people voted against him illegally in November, giving Hillary Clinton a victory in the popular vote. Republican and Democratic officials alike said there was no indication of any such thing, and Mr. Trump’s promised investigation has so far led nowhere.
Nor was it the first time Mr. Trump leveled astonishing allegations against Mr. Obama. He spent years promoting the false claim that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States, promising an investigation to uncover the truth and backing down only last year, during his campaign. And last summer, he asserted that Mr. Obama was “the founder of ISIS.”
At least he didn’t roll out a cart of Trump Steaks. There are no Trump Steaks. There never were, and there was contrary information:
FBI Director James B. Comey asked the Justice Department this weekend to issue a statement refuting President Trump’s claim that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump’s phones before the election, according to U.S. officials, but the department did not do so.
Comey made the request Saturday after Trump accused Obama on Twitter of having his “‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” The White House expanded on Trump’s comments Sunday with a call for a congressional probe of his allegations.
The revelation, first reported by the New York Times, underscores the fraught nature of the FBI’s high-profile investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. A key question fueling that inquiry is whether Trump associates colluded with Russian officials to help Trump win.
Neither Justice nor the FBI would comment Sunday.
They cannot comment. If there was a FISA warrant for a wiretap – to find out what a known agent of a hostile government was saying, even over a line in Trump Tower – that would be secret. Not even Donald Trump can ask about that in public. No one is supposed to know. All they can say is that no one was tapping Trump’s phone, at least to find stuff to ruin him politically, and that’s what they said:
The development came as Trump’s charge against Obama – leveled without any evidence – was being rebuffed both inside and outside of the executive branch. It drew a blunt, on-the-record denial by a top intelligence official who served in the Obama administration.
Speaking on NBC News on Sunday morning, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. denied that a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) wiretap was authorized against Trump or the campaign during his tenure.
“There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time as a candidate or against his campaign,” Clapper said on “Meet the Press,” adding that he would “absolutely” have been informed if the FBI had received a FISA warrant against either.
“I can deny it,” Clapper said emphatically.
Okay, there wasn’t even a FISA wiretap, but Trump had heard through the Breitbart grapevine that the Obama folks had asked for one, got turned down, then asked again and got one. That’s what they heard from someone, somewhere, somehow, and that was enough for Donald Trump:
In his claims early Saturday morning, the president tweeted that he “just found out” that Obama had “my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” before the election. Trump compared the alleged action to “McCarthyism.”
“Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire-tapping’ a race for president prior to an election?” Trump asked in another tweet. “Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”
By Sunday morning, the White House doubled down on Trump’s explosive tweet storm and called for the congressional probe.
No one was bored now:
Current and former government officials said such surveillance would not have been approved by any senior Justice official in the Obama administration. And Trump’s allegation raised hackles in the FBI leadership, implying as it did that the bureau may have acted illegally to wiretap a presidential candidate without probable cause that he was an “agent of a foreign power,” as the foreign intelligence surveillance law requires.
“This is Nixon/Watergate,” Trump tweeted Saturday.
A spokesman for Obama countered several hours later that the former president never authorized a wiretap of Trump or any other American citizen. “Any suggestion otherwise is simply false,” the spokesman said.
That’s the issue here:
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Sunday cited “reports” of “potentially politically motivated investigations” during the 2016 campaign, calling them “troubling.” But none of the media reports cited by the White House provides evidence of a politically motivated surveillance effort against Trump.
“President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016,” Spicer said. “Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted,” the statement added.
They’re going to shut up now. They expect those congressional committees to thoroughly investigate those rumors on the Breitbart grapevine, no matter what the law says about not wiretapping American citizens or what every other part of the government says actually says. One never knows, but this was curious:
It is not clear why Comey, who is the senior-most law enforcement officer who has been overseeing the FBI investigation from its inception in the Obama administration, did not himself issue a statement to refute Trump’s claims. Nor is it clear to whom he made his request. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself last week from all investigative matters related to the Trump campaign and any potential Russia links. The acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, a career federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, is now overseeing the probe.
Comey knows better now. In the summer before the election he cleared Hillary Clinton of all charges, infuriating every Republican. Ten days before the election, he said he found more Clinton emails. Republicans cheered – Hillary was going to jail. And then, three days before the election, he said sorry – false alarm – infuriating every Democrat. That may have cost her the election. Let Dana handle this. He’d have none of it.
Others were not so detached:
“This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens,” said former Obama White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told Meet the Press that Trump is “in trouble” and acting “beneath the dignity of the presidency.”
“The president’s in trouble if he falsely spread this kind of information,” Schumer said. “It shows this president doesn’t know how to conduct himself.”
Karen Tumulty recognizes that:
Donald Trump’s presidency has veered onto a road with no centerlines or guardrails…
The audacious tactic was a familiar one for Trump, who has little regard for norms and conventions. When he wants to change a subject, he often does it by touching a match to the dry tinder of a sketchy conspiracy theory.
But the stakes have gotten higher, and the consequences more real and serious, as questions mount over Moscow’s reported attempts to interfere with last year’s presidential election.
Trump’s response also has deepened doubts about his own judgment, not just in the face of the first crisis to confront his young presidency but in dealing with the challenges that lie ahead for the chief executive of the world’s most powerful nation.
That’s a real concern:
The voice of a U.S. commander in chief carries much greater weight than that of just about anyone else on the planet. Trump’s detractors say the way he uses that platform has worrisome implications that go far beyond the sensation he creates on social media and his ability to dominate the news.
“We have as president a man who is erratic, vindictive, volatile, obsessive, a chronic liar, and prone to believe in conspiracy theories,” said conservative commentator Peter Wehner, who was the top policy strategist in George W. Bush’s White House. “And you can count on the fact that there will be more to come, since when people like Donald Trump gain power they become less, not more, restrained.”
Nor does Trump appear to have a governing apparatus around him that can temper and channel his impulses.
“When the president goes off and does what he did within the last few days, of just going ahead and tweeting without checking on things, there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong in terms of the discipline within the White House and how you operate,” Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton and CIA director during the Obama administration, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Foreign leaders, observing this from what is not a safe distance anymore, must be panicked, not to mention the rest of us:
“This is exceedingly problematic. We were already in a huge deficit as to what the country trusted out of Washington and our leaders,” said Matthew Dowd, who has been a strategist for both Democratic and Republican politicians.
“This only adds to it,” Dowd said. “We’re in a surreal world.”
That seems to be the case, and in the Washington Post, Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Ashley Parker look into the chaos, with this stipulation:
This account of the administration’s tumultuous recent days is based on interviews with 17 top White House officials, members of Congress and friends of the president, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly.
They spoke candidly:
Gnawing at Trump, according to one of his advisers, is the comparison between his early track record and that of Obama in 2009, when amid the Great Recession he enacted an economic stimulus bill and other big-ticket items.
There’s been no legislation – just executive orders to tweak what already exists. The (Muslim) travel ban got shot down in the courts. Trump knows this. Obama, who had a congressional majority, just as Trump has, did better. That must gnaw at him, but that’s not all:
Trump, meanwhile, has been feeling besieged, believing that his presidency is being tormented in ways known and unknown by a group of Obama-aligned critics, federal bureaucrats and intelligence figures – not to mention the media, which he has called “the enemy of the American people.”
That angst over what many in the White House call the “deep state” is fermenting daily, fueled by rumors and tidbits picked up by Trump allies within the intelligence community and by unconfirmed allegations that have been made by right-wing commentators. The “deep state” is a phrase popular on the right for describing entrenched networks hostile to Trump.
Those seventeen sources see paranoia, and this:
The president has been seething as he watches round-the-clock cable news coverage. Trump recently vented to an associate that Carter Page, a onetime Trump campaign adviser, keeps appearing on television even though he and Trump have no significant relationship.
That’s an actor’s rage – someone else, not even a lowly understudy, stole the spotlight – and there’s this:
Stories from Breitbart News, the incendiary conservative website, have been circulated at the White House’s highest levels in recent days, including one story where talk-radio host Mark Levin accused the Obama administration of mounting a “silent coup,” according to several officials.
Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist who once ran Breitbart, has spoken with Trump at length about his view that the “deep state” is a direct threat to his presidency.
He has his Svengali:
Advisers pointed to Bannon’s frequent closed-door guidance on the topic and Trump’s agreement as a fundamental way of understanding the president’s behavior and his willingness to confront the intelligence community – and said that when Bannon spoke recently about the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” he was also alluding to his aim of rupturing the intelligence community and its influence on the U.S. national security and foreign policy consensus.
Dismantle the state, Donald. Bannon whispers that in his ear, but then there was the relatively well-received Tuesday speech to Congress, which almost immediately disappeared:
The merriment came to a sudden end on Wednesday night, when The Washington Post first reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador despite having said under oath at his Senate confirmation hearing that he had no contact with the Russians.
Inside the West Wing, Trump’s top aides were furious with the defenses of Sessions offered by the Justice Department’s public affairs division and felt blindsided that Sessions’ aides had not consulted the White House earlier in the process, according to one senior White House official.
The big guy was furious too:
The next morning, Trump exploded, according to White House officials. He headed to Newport News, Va., on Thursday for a splashy commander-in-chief moment. The president would trumpet his plan to grow military spending aboard the Navy’s sophisticated new aircraft carrier. But as Trump, sporting a bomber jacket and Navy cap, rallied sailors and shipbuilders, his message was overshadowed by Sessions.
Then, a few hours after Trump had publicly defended his attorney general and said he should not recuse himself from the Russia probe, Sessions called a news conference to announce just that – amounting to a public rebuke of the president.
Back at the White House on Friday morning, Trump summoned his senior aides into the Oval Office, where he simmered with rage, according to several White House officials. He upbraided them over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself, believing that Sessions had succumbed to pressure from the media and other critics instead of fighting with the full defenses of the White House.
There was a whole lot of swearing, and then only this:
Trump was brighter Sunday morning as he read several newspapers, pleased that his allegations against Obama were the dominant story, the official said.
But he found reason to be mad again: Few Republicans were defending him on the Sunday political talk shows. Some Trump advisers and allies were especially disappointed in Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who two days earlier had hitched a ride down to Florida with Trump on Air Force One.
Pressed by NBC’s Chuck Todd to explain Trump’s wiretapping claim, Rubio demurred.
“Look, I didn’t make the allegation,” he said. “I’m not the person that went out there and said it.”
Rubio left Trump swinging in the wind. The rage returned, and Kevin Drum wonders about the other Republicans:
This whole thing is completely, batshit crazy. Everyone knows that Trump is just making stuff up: He saw an article in Breitbart and decided to throw some chum in the water. The White House has even confirmed this. But the press has to report it anyway because the president said it, and Republicans in Congress will allow the craziness to continue because they don’t care. They just want to repeal Obamacare and get their tax cut passed. So Trump can do anything he wants and get endless publicity for it, with no pushback except from Democrats. And nobody cares what Democrats say.
That may not be sustainable:
The Trump presidency gets loonier by the day. It’s like one of those TV shows where they have to keep upping the ante to keep viewers interested. Trump started his presidency with his childish temper tantrum about crowds at his inauguration, but that seems like small beer now. To get any attention these days, he needs way more. So how about a childish temper tantrum that accuses the former president of ordering his phone tapped?
How far can this go? I’m stumped. Every time Trump is in a bad mood, something like this happens. And since Trump is in a bad mood whenever he isn’t being universally praised, this stuff is going to keep happening forever. Are tax cuts and Obamacare really worth so much to Republicans that they’re okay with having this ignorant, short-tempered child in the White House for the next four years? I mean, maybe nothing serious will happen during that time, and we’ll be more-or-less okay. But what about the chance that something serious does happen and Trump does some serious damage to the United States or to the world?
Is it really worth it taking that chance? Just for some tax cuts?
Hell, he may nuke someone, and E. J. Dionne offers this:
Trump has a problem either way. If he was not wiretapped, he invented a spectacularly false charge. And if a court ordered some sort of surveillance of him, on what grounds did it do so?
Every time the issue of the relationship between Trump’s apparatus and Moscow comes up, he is moved to unleash unhinged counterattacks. This only underscores how urgent it is to get to the bottom of this story quickly.
Trump made things worse for Trump, and for the rest of us:
The crucial issue is how all this affects our national security. But this saga also reminds us that a crowd claiming to place “America First” does not really believe its own slogan. They place only about half of America first, the part that opposed Obama and supported Trump. When it comes to the other half, they feel only contempt.
This is why Russian interference in our democracy appears to matter far less to Trump than saving his own skin. It’s also why he could compare Obama unfavorably to a foreign autocrat during the 2016 campaign. He said Vladimir Putin had been “a better leader than Obama because Obama’s not a leader” and ominously praised Putin for having “very strong control over a country.” What do such statements have to do with American patriotism as we have traditionally understood it? And now Trump has accused Obama of violating the law.
Trump seems to assume that the truth doesn’t matter anymore, that a leader just needs enough voters to believe the “alternative facts” his side invents.
Dionne offers only this:
If there is any good news here, it’s this: Alternative facts can take you only so far. A president can’t just make up charges against his predecessor, call him a “bad (or sick) guy,” and then get away with it.
That’s a worry, but others can tweet too, like Steve Benen:
If Trump made this up, the president appears delusional. If he didn’t, the evidence against Trump must be alarmingly serious.
And there’s Justin Miller:
What’s scarier, White House reportedly interfering with investigation or not knowing that saying this is tantamount to a confession?
And there’s Bruce Bartlett:
Take Nixon in the deepest days of his Watergate paranoia, subtract 50 IQ points, add Twitter, and you have Trump today.
“I will be so presidential you will be so bored.” No one is bored now. They’re frightened.