Early Saturday morning, President Trump found something alarming in his Daily Conspiracy Brief (a.k.a. Breitbart): Barack Obama had tapped the phone lines of Trump Tower, shortly before last November’s election.
The president promptly drafted a carefully worded statement, informing the public of this extraordinary development.
It quickly became apparent that Trump’s claim derived from no special intelligence (quite the opposite, in fact). The president appears to have embellished on the details of a Breitbart article, which was based on a rant by conservative radio host Mark Levin, which itself embellished on reporting from the British press — reporting that American newspapers have failed to confirm.
Here’s the core of Breitbart’s story: The Obama administration secured a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court to monitor links between a computer server in Trump Tower and Russian banks. This turned up no evidence — but the administration left the “wiretaps” in, anyway. Then, they monitored Trump’s presidential campaign, ostensibly to aid Clinton’s candidacy. After Trump won, Obama changed the rules governing information-sharing between intelligence agencies, thereby putting his ill-gotten intelligence into the hands of Democratic loyalists throughout the government. These loyalists then began leaking misleading bits of that intelligence to generate bad press for the Trump administration — and, thus, aid Obama’s “silent coup.”
Notably, Breitbart’s account does not claim that Obama, personally, ordered the FISA warrant (requests that normally come from intelligence agencies). Nor does the site describe an illegal procedure — the administration ostensibly received judicial approval for everything it did. Which is to say: The administration amassed sufficient evidence to convince a FISA judge that there was reason to suspect illicit collaboration between Trump’s associates and the Russian government. So, even in the right-wing fever swamp’s telling, this is rather different from “Nixon/Watergate” — tricky Dick did not get into trouble for successfully pursuing a FISA warrant to monitor the DNC.
But the White House isn’t going to let a lack of evidence ruin a perfectly good paranoid fantasy. On Sunday, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer suggested the president’s allegation was supported by “reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations.” Asked to substantiate that claim, the White House provided the Post with five articles from outlets including The Guardian, the BBC, and the National Review.
The Post’s Glenn Kessler found these reports less than compelling:
Only one article, with British roots, reported that a FISA court order was granted in October to examine possible activity between two Russian banks and a computer server in the Trump Tower. This claim has not been confirmed by U.S. news organizations. Moreover, no article says that Obama requested the order or that it resulted in the tapping of Trump’s phone lines. The server, in fact, may not have even been in Trump Tower…
Moreover, the articles do not support the White House’s claim that these were “potentially politically motivated investigations” led by Obama. The articles all suggest that the FISA requests — if they happened — were done by the intelligence agencies and the FBI.
That last bit is not lost on the FBI. The bureau’s director, James Comey, pushed for the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s claim over the weekend, according to the New York Times and NBC News.
But on Monday, the White House suggested that Trump trusts his own misreadings of Breitbart articles over the word of the FBI director.
Asked if the president accepts Comey’s denial of the alleged wiretaps, Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Good Morning America, “No, I don’t think he does,” explaining that Trump “wants the truth to come out to the American people and he is asking that it be done through the House Intelligence Committee and that that be the process that we go through.”
With Trump’s most outlandish conspiracy theories, it’s often difficult to discern whether the president is selling snake oil or imbibing it. Initially, his tale about how the popular vote was stolen from him (by undocumented immigrants) read like a cynical attempt to give his Electoral College victory greater legitimacy. But subsequent reports revealed that he insisted on this baseless fantasy even in private conversations with friends and lawmakers.
Similarly, reports following Trump’s tweetstorm suggest that he genuinely believes Barack Obama tapped his phones. Per the Washington Post:
When Trump ran into Christopher Ruddy on the golf course and later at dinner Saturday, he vented to his friend. “This will be investigated,” Ruddy recalled Trump telling him. “It will all come out. I will be proven right.” “He was pissed,” said Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax, a conservative media company. “I haven’t seen him this angry.”
Axios’s Mike Allen corroborates this — and suggests that some in Trump’s inner circle are actively encouraging the president’s delusion.
I have learned that some — though definitely not all — members of President Trump’s inner circle share his belief that the Obama administration tapped his Trump Tower phones in October. And a White House official told me President Trump not only doesn’t regret this weekend’s fracas despite the lack of evidence for his astonishing claim, he is “absolutely convinced” he’ll be vindicated.
“The president just has a great nose for these things,” the official said. “It’s the bureaucratic leaks — the deep state — that bother him most. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers.”
Meanwhile, Trump has ordered his chief counsel, Donald F. McGahn, to secure access to the alleged FISA order that would vindicate Trump’s story — a move that the Justice Department would view as a “stunning case of interference,” according to the New York Times.
So, perhaps the president genuinely believes he’s calling Comey’s bluff. Then again, it may be a mistake to suggest that Trump is either genuinely deluded or cynically baiting the media into amplifying his desired narrative. Rather, the president may have a gift for convincing himself of whatever he would like the public to believe.
In the Post’s write-up of Trump’s tumultuous weekend, only one thing relieved the president’s paranoid rage:
Trump was brighter Sunday morning as he read several newspapers, pleased that his allegations against Obama were the dominant story, the official said.
The president has made a “very good point” — “even if it turns out not to be true.”