To briefly review: President Trump woke early on March 5, piqued, and reportedly heard a news report by right-wing talk show host Mark Levin (later picked up by Breitbart News, an outlet that travels in nationalist-nativist propaganda).
The story: Trump Tower had been wiretapped during the final days of the campaign by President Obama. This allegation immediately appealed to the conspiracist in Donald Trump, prompting him to launch a series of tweets that unequivocally stated that his predecessor had wiretapped Trump Tower.
It’s one thing for him to insist that the “dishonest, lying media” is conspiring against him. It’s quite another to accuse President Obama of having committed a felony.
Trump’s first tweet: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
The second tweet: “I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”
Followed by a third tweet: “How low has president Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Obama, through a spokesman, stated, “Neither President Obama nor any White House official ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.” To suggest otherwise is “simply false.”
Trump, when asked about his tweets, responded by calling for a congressional investigation. But as all Washington intelligence agencies know, most especially the FBI, a president cannot order the wiretapping of a U.S. citizen. And therein is the untenable corner Trump has painted himself into. In order to install such a wiretap, which is the purview of the FBI, that agency would have had to go to a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) judge and make a prima facie case that criminal activity was taking place at Trump Tower, which, if substantive, would result in a warrant being issued for a wiretap. In the absence of such activity, no wiretap would be authorized.
If the Trump campaign had been in touch with a foreign government in a nefarious manner (say, colluding with Russia to undermine Hillary’s campaign), then it’s possible that surveillance was ordered. Either way it’s a problem for Trump, no matter how many tortured definitions of “wiretap” Sean Spicer offers up or how often he uses air quotes when uttering the word wiretap.
Trump has repeatedly been asked to produce the evidence that prompted the early morning tweets. Thus far, he has only said, through his press secretary, Sean Spicer, that he will be “vindicated” when the congressional investigation is concluded. The Justice Department has delayed for a week any conclusions regarding its inquiry.
Members of Congress — including senior Republicans such as Lindsay Graham and John McCain — have called for Trump to make available any proof used as the basis for his tweets. And so Congress and the nation wait while the debate continues over the difference between “literal language” and “figurative language.” It has actually been suggested that we should not take Trump’s tweets literally. Think of them as metaphors.
Many in the political and intelligence community are aware of Trump’s conspiratorial bent. How often during the campaign did he insist that the election and the polls were “rigged”? He claimed voter fraud was endemic, referring specifically to the 3 million more votes accrued by Hillary than he received in the presidential election. Climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by China. Muslims cheered when the Twin Towers fell. Of course, Trump spent five years alleging Obama was born in Kenya and later declared that Obama was “the founder of ISIS.”
What Trump’s tweets tell us is that the president travels in an alternative reality, one constructed of “facts” that conform to his particular view of the world and are not grounded in any verifiable truth. It is a world often framed by conspiracies that have been gleaned from fringe news sources (Breitbart, Infowars, National Enquirer) while he denigrates the mainstream media and the “so called” judiciary.
Where this will take us as a nation is now playing out. Stay tuned. And if you’re seriously worried, it’s because you’re paying attention.
— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.