According to The Washington Post and CNN, President Donald Trump was very, very angry that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from any further involvement with the ongoing investigations into Russian involvement in the presidential campaign. He was so upset that he banned chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Steve Bannon from Air Force One and then stormed off fuming that his big, beautiful speech on Tuesday had been overshadowed by yet another “mini-disaster.” A senior White House official told ABC News, “we should have had a good week,” adding, “We should have had a good weekend. But once again, back to Russia.”
And then all hell really broke loose. CNN’s Jake Tapper confirmed that on Saturday morning that Trump had read conservative talk show host Mark Levin’s sensational evolving narrative on Breitbart News and let loose a volley of tweets that exploded all over the media with shocking allegations that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower to interfere with our “sacred election.” He called him a “bad (and sick) guy.”
We have all been observing Trump long enough now to recognize his game. Whenever he’s accused of something, he throws the same thing back on the accuser. Calling Hillary Clinton “crooked” and “a world-class liar” are the two most obvious examples. Saying she was “pumped up” on drugs was one of the more obscure but revealing episodes. I would imagine that the minute he read that Breitbart story it spoke to him as if he’d come up with it himself.
It’s clever. After months of being under suspicion concerning the Russian government’s intervention on his behalf, Trump can now turn the tables and accuse Obama of intervening on Clinton’s behalf. Isn’t that convenient? Where people have been starting to see this growing Russian scandal as the biggest political imbroglio since Watergate, Trump and his right-wing minions will now deflect attention to this story in the hopes that their followers will treat it as the “real scandal” and if they are lucky, make everyone else’s heads explode. It is a bold misdirection and while it’s fatuous in the extreme, don’t assume that it won’t be effective.
It is almost certainly the case that Trump read the Breitbart story and blew it up on Twitter out of sheer feral instinct, but the story didn’t just appear out of nowhere. There have been rumblings about this for a while. Conservative commentator Eli Lake of Bloomberg has been complaining about the intelligence agencies overstepping their bounds in the Russian investigation, calling the resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser a “political assassination.” He has long been a critic of the intelligence community’s surveillance powers, so his views on this are consistent, which is more than we can say about the former hard-line national security Republicans who suddenly sound like card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The most hypocritical of that crew is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who has been wringing his hands for weeks over the impropriety of a “private citizen” like Michael Flynn having his phone calls with the Russian ambassador intercepted by the government. As Nunes well knows, and as Flynn, a former director of national intelligence, surely should have known, it’s routine to monitor the conversations of foreign ambassadors. Presumably the monitors would have ignored Flynn’s side of it if he hadn’t been babbling about sanctions and spies on the call.
In any case, this would be the first time in history that Nunes has ever expressed even the slightest concern for such niceties. Until now he has always been one of the intelligence community’s most ardent defenders, insisting that people were being hysterical over the Edward Snowden revelations and fighting any restrictions to the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
And for all his handwringing this past weekend, Trump himself has hardly been a surveillance state critic. Among other things, he has said he’s in favor of a Muslim “registry” and spying on Black Lives Matter activists. He even called for a ban of Apple when it refused to help the government unlock the encryption on the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters. One of his most famous quotes is from the full-page newspaper ad he took out calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five: “CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
Everything we know about Trump suggests that he would be a great friend to the intelligence agencies; he has already shown that he’s prepared to make the military-industrial complex richer than its players ever dreamed possible. That raises the question, Why in the world would “deep state” operators be so hostile to Trump as to try to sabotage his presidency, as the White House and much of the right-wing press seem to believe? One would assume deep-state apparatchiks would be thrilled to support him and help him any way they could. If Trump wants to expand their powers and is simply being friendly with the Russians in the hopes of a new relationship — potentially opening the door to the return of Edward Snowden, so Trump can execute him as he’s promised — what’s not to like from their perspective?
The question now is whether Republicans will be able to change the storyline from the Russian scandal to an Obama scandal — or at least sufficiently muddy the waters. According to The Washington Post, Trump was brighter Sunday morning as he read several newspapers, pleased that his allegations against Obama were the dominant story. He must have been very happy to see this:
BREAKING: White House demands that Congress investigate whether Obama abused executive powers in connection with 2016 election.
— The Associated Press (@AP) March 5, 2017
My goodness, that sounds serious, doesn’t it?
Although the Sunday morning hosts were aggressive in questioning Trump surrogates, their equally aggressive questioning of President Obama’s spokesmen, such as in the interviews by Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week,” at least partly legitimized Trump’s accusations and calls for congressional investigations, simply by the “he said/she said” nature of the format.
It seems ridiculous that Trump could actually create a counter-narrative out of this nonsense. But the Republicans managed to turn Benghazi attack into a major scandal without much to go on. And when they found out Hillary Clinton had a personal email server, they managed to get the media so excited they could hardly speak of anything else. That’s not likely to occur in this case, since Trump’s administration is a Dumpster fire that flares up on a daily basis. But it would be a mistake to think it’s impossible. Trumping up scandals are what Republicans do best.