President Donald Trump’s White House hunkered down unexpectedly Saturday to formulate a response to the president’s bizarre, unhinged tweets that morning accusing former President Barack Obama and members of the Obama administration of illegally “wire tapping” Trump Tower telephones in the weeks before the election. Suspicion quickly mounted that Trump lashed out after reading a Breitbart article, which amplified right-wing radio host Mark Levin’s call for Congress to investigate “Obama’s ‘Silent Coup’” against Trump.
Considering the explosiveness of Trump’s allegations, and the likelihood that they were created from whole cloth, his aides would have been well advised to begin the followup process by asking Trump, “Why did you tweet that? Was Breitbart your source?” Instead, Trump and his retinue have decided that the wisest course of action is to pretend the accusations may have merit, and ask Congress to get to the bottom of them.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans on Capitol Hill aren’t anywhere close to prepared to rebuff Trump, and have decided instead to pretend Trump’s allegations might be well-founded. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes promised in an official statement to “make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates.”
Between Trump, who may have aided and abetted a Russian effort to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Obama, who now stands accused of abusing his powers to lawlessly surveil a rival party’s standard bearer, only one of them is acting as if he knows he’s done nothing wrong. And it isn’t Trump.
“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” Obama’s spokesman Kevin Lewis said in an official response—both an outright denial of the accusation that Obama ordered the FBI to wiretap anyone, and an implicit rebuke of the Trump White House’s breezy efforts to compromise FBI inquiries. FBI Director James Comey is reportedly pressuring the Justice Department leadership to correct the record.
Trump, meanwhile, is said to be in the throes of disconsolate rage. It is significant that Trump is determined to squelch or undermine investigations into his campaign’s conduct, and that his surrogates are routinely caught lying about their conduct, while those on the receiving end of his deranged rants stand in the way of nothing, seeking only to have their names cleared. And the upshot may be that Trump’s strange, diversionary behavior will backfire, and leave his supplicants to answer for why they enabled it.
It is alarming for Trump to seek an investigation of the Obama administration on the basis of right-wing agitprop and raw impulse. Under slightly different circumstances, it is easy to imagine Trump and his Republican supplicants ruining the lives of innocent people with this kind of behavior, corroding the rule of law in the process. But in this specific case, what he’s actually asking for is an expansion of the various investigations into Russian campaign meddling and the Trump campaign’s connections to it. Democrats should happily oblige.
As Nunes noted in his statement, his interest in Trump’s allegations stems from the fact that “one of the focus points of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation is the U.S. government’s response to actions taken by Russian intelligence agents during the presidential campaign.” In other words, to the extent that House investigators are taking orders from Trump, they will be digging further into the question of whether the Trump campaign and the Russian government conspired against Clinton. In light of the strenuousness of Obama’s denial, and Comey’s extraordinary interest in clearing the FBI’s name publicly, it is likely that Nunes’ inquiry will either reveal serious probable cause for investigating Trump or that Trump’s accusations don’t have even tenuous connection to reality.
By staking out this ground, Trump has activated a partisan response from Republicans who were trying to protect Trump from scrutiny. That’s why Republicans can’t safely count on the vicissitudes of the news cycle to protect them from the political consequences of this Trump outrage, as they have in the past. One Republican lawmaker speaking to BuzzFeed described Trump’s tweets as “a big deal that will be forgotten in two weeks if it’s not true.” I’m not sure that’s so.
When that investigation is over, it will either clear Trump and his team or it won’t, but in either case it will almost certainly reveal that Trump is willing to abuse the megaphone of the presidency to smear his political enemies and seek recriminations against them. The question for all the Republicans humoring Trump right now will then be: What are you going to do about it?