Guest Opinion: Trump tries to change the subject
Since Saturday’s jaw-dropping series of tweets by President Donald Trump, Washington has been consumed by the wrong story. Yes, Trump’s claim that his predecessor illegally ordered, Watergate-style, the bugging of Trump Tower during the presidential campaign is astonishing. But it seems designed to divert attention from the briskly accumulating evidence that Trump’s closest campaign advisers were in frequent contact with Russia diplomats, intelligence agents and other surrogates during the campaign and since.
That evidence is alarming. Investigations into whether the meetings amounted to crimes or some kind of collusion with a foreign power are underway by both the FBI and Congress, where Republican leaders have staked their credibility on ensuring that the inquiries are thorough.
Already, Trump’s national security adviser was forced to resign just a month into the job after lying to Vice President Mike Pence and others about his contacts with Russia. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also made false statements, this time to Congress, about two meetings with the Russian ambassador, and as a result has recused himself from the ongoing inquiry.
No surprise, then, that the president might want to change the subject. Early Saturday, he issued a series of tweets accusing President Barack Obama of criminal abuse of power of a degree not alleged since Richard Nixon was forced out of office nearly 45 years ago.
Trump offered no basis for the astounding claim Saturday; nor has anyone in the White House offered any since.
There have been, for months, anonymously sourced reports that the Justice Department had asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to authorize wiretapping, to monitor activity related to a Trump Tower server and two Russian banks, though that has not been confirmed.
But officials have denied those reports. “There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, as a candidate or against his campaign,” said James Clapper, former director of national intelligence.
Even if such a request had been granted, it would have been by the court, not by the administration. No reporting has ever revealed any basis to believe that Obama ordered a wire tap of anyone, much less Trump or his team.
Obama has denied the accusation. So has Clapper. A top Republican in Congress has said he is aware of no evidence to support the claim. And FBI Director James Comey has reportedly gone so far as to demand that the Justice Department publicly contradict Trump, whose claims, if true, would seem to indict the FBI as well.
What prompted Trump to make his assertions Saturday? On Thursday night, a far-right talk show host argued that Obama’s team had conducted an ongoing campaign to undermine Trump before and after the election; Breitbart reported on that show Friday. A White House official told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that the article circulated in the West Wing and infuriated Trump.
Trump took to Twitter. What better way to get America to shift the focus off the Russia story line?
The irony is that this time it might backfire. After all, judges order wiretaps, not presidents.
If it’s true that his campaign was bugged — and, again, that has never been established — it means that a judge, not the president, determined that Team Trump’s ties to Russia merited extraordinary monitoring. That’s precisely the conclusion, it would seem, that Trump most wants to keep Americans from coming to.