By E.J. DIONNE JR.
Donald Trump’s astonishing and reckless accusation that he was wiretapped on orders from President Obama should finally be the tipping point in how the country views him and his presidency.
Obama, through a spokesman, said the charges were “simply false.” It appears that Trump issued his wild tweet storm Saturday morning largely on the basis of reports in conspiracy-minded right-wing media.
He signaled his lack of evidence first by reportedly pushing his White House staff to ransack sensitive intelligence information to find support for his claim. Then on Sunday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump wanted Congress to look into the matter and that the administration would offer no further comment.
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.
We need to understand why those in Trump’s orbit who engaged with Moscow stick with lies and misdirection until the moment their falsehoods are publicly revealed. The truth has to be dragged out of them by the media, working in concert with those in government (AKA “leakers”) who refuse to sit by while the system they serve is endangered.
No wonder Trump hates leakers and the press. With so many Republicans in Congress prepared to abandon everything they said about accountability before Jan. 20, 2017, the main lines of defense against executive abuses have to come from journalists, those who supply them with information, and courageous judges.
The Washington Post’s revelation last week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about his two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak came after Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, lied about the nature of his own Russian contacts. Flynn stuck to false claims about his conversations with Kislyak until the Post and other media blew them out of the water. Flynn had to resign.
Sessions’ convenient memory lapse (“I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians”) was especially jarring because it came after an inquiry from Sen. Al Franken in which the Minnesota Democratdid not even ask Sessions whether he met with Russians.
Franken’s query ended this way: “… if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
Why did Sessions think he had to respond to a question that wasn’t even posed?
And during his news conference announcing his recusal from investigations into the Russia connection —Trump, by the way, was enraged because he didn’t want Sessions to pull back—the attorney general remembered many things Kislyak had said, but used the phrase “I don’t recall” five times about various other aspects of the encounters.
The Sessions moment was followed by the confirmation of previously undisclosed meetings with Kislyak, one involving Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, another with former campaign advisers Carter Page and J. D. Gordon.
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.
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.
(Washington Post Writers Group)