The Daily 202: Wiretapping allegations accomplished what Trump wanted – but may backfire bigly

The following article by James Hohmann with Breanna Deppisch was posted on the Washington Post website March 6, 2017:

THE BIG IDEA: It is easy to pooh-pooh Donald Trump’s predawn Saturday tweetstorm accusing Barack Obama of the worst political crimes since Watergate while offering no evidence  as an undisciplined rant from someone who has long embraced conspiracy theories.

That neither gives the president enough credit nor reflects the gravity of his unfounded accusations.

It is past time to dispense with the fiction that Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to distract us. And, at least this weekend, he succeeded.

— The country’s chief law enforcement officer made a false statement to Congress, while under oath, about his contacts with one of this nation’s biggest adversaries. (Legal experts, including Republicans, note that others have been prosecuted for less.) When he got busted, Attorney General Jeff Sessions initially claimed through a spokeswoman that he couldn’t recall specifics of what had been said during his undisclosed sit-down with the Russian ambassador, except that it wasn’t political in nature. Then, with his job on the line, he miraculously remembered supposedly exculpatory details.

This is a big dang deal, no matter how hard Sessions tries to spin it. It’s such a big deal that, after weeks of  refusing to do so and with the president publicly urging him not to, the AG agreed to recuse himself from any investigations related to the 2016 campaign.

Last Thursday, Sessions said at his press conference that he would write the Judiciary Committee “today or tomorrow” to clarify his misleading testimony. It’s now been four days, and he has yet to formally clean things up. A spokesman said he’ll submit amended testimony later today. We’ll see. Either way, a delay this long only happens when one is trying to get one’s ducks in a row.

But the press didn’t spend this weekend talking about Sessions. He had confirmed to attend the Gridiron Dinner in Washington on Saturday night, but he skipped it and flew to Florida to be with Trump. The Sunday shows did not dwell on debates over the AG’s duplicity. Instead, everyone talked about whether Obama wiretapped Trump Tower last October.

And Trump was happy as a clam about that. A White House official told The Post that the president was in a brighter mood on Sunday morning than he was on Saturday because he was pleased that his allegations against Obama were the dominant story on cable and led the newspapers.

The president knows the media cannot ignore him when he says something so inflammatory, and he believes there will be no real consequences for him if it turns out that everything he said was nonsense. After all, there haven’t been up until now.

Moreover, Trump’s core supporters also got a new talking point. Whenever they’re confronted with the links between Trump associates and Russia, millions of people are now going to reply that the real story is Obama’s wiretapping — even if that claim is shown definitively to have no basis in reality.


— The president was seething mad as he watched round-the-clock cable news coverage about Sessions. He was angry that the positive marks he received for his Tuesday speech to Congress, which made him jubilant, had been replaced by the Wednesday night news about Sessions. The Post’s Phil Rucker, Bob Costa and Ashley Parker have a tick tock on the fury that followed, based on interviews with 17 top White House officials, members of Congress and friends of the president:

  • “Inside the West Wing [on Wednesday night], Trump’s top aides were furious with the defenses of Sessions offered by the Justice Department’s public affairs division and felt blindsided that Sessions’s aides had not consulted the White House earlier in the process….
  • “The next morning, Trump exploded, according to White House officials. He headed to Newport News, Va., on Thursday for a splashy commander-in-chief moment. The president would trumpet his plan to grow military spending aboard the Navy’s sophisticated new aircraft carrier. But as Trump, sporting a bomber jacket and Navy cap, rallied sailors and shipbuilders, his message was overshadowed by Sessions….
  • “Then, a few hours after Trump had publicly defended his attorney general and said he should not recuse himself from the Russia probe, Sessions called a news conference to announce just that — amounting to a public rebuke of the president….
  • “Back at the White House on Friday morning, Trump summoned his senior aides into the Oval Office, where he simmered with rage, according to several White House officials. He upbraided them over Sessions’s decision to recuse himself, believing that Sessions had succumbed to pressure from the media and other critics instead of fighting with the full defenses of the White House…
  • “In a huff, Trump departed for Mar-a-Lago, taking with him only his daughter and [son-in-law], who is a White House senior adviser. His top two aides, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and [Stephen] Bannon, stayed behind in Washington.
  • “Stories from Breitbart News, the incendiary conservative website, have been circulated at the White House’s highest levels in recent days, including one story where talk-radio host Mark Levin accused the Obama administration of mounting a ‘silent coup,’ according to several officials.”


— Whenever he is under fire for something in a sustained way, he makes a shocking claim or provocative declaration about something else to change the subject. He is a master practitioner at the politics of distraction. These five examples might jog your memory:

  • After struggling during the first GOP primary debate to explain his disparaging comments about women, he attacked Megyn Kelly. “There was … blood coming out of her wherever,” he said, ensuring that the media focused on the new Trump-Kelly “feud.”
  • When the 2005 Access Hollywood video came out, he brought Bill Clinton’s former accusers to St. Louis as his guests to the second debate.
  • In November, the morning after agreeing to settle a fraud lawsuit against Trump University for $25 million, he demanded that the cast of “Hamilton” apologize to Mike Pence.
  • Days after firing Michael Flynn, he held a rambling 77-minute press conference because he knew that it would get the Flynn story out of the news.
  • Perturbed when critics pointed out that he lost the popular vote, he claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally.


— Trump’s approach to crisis management continues to be guided by the Roy Cohn playbook. “This is McCarthyism!” Trump said, as he attacked Obama for supposedly wiretapping him, on Saturday. There was great irony to this. Cohn, after all, was Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations during the early 1950s. Two decades later, he became one of Trump’s biggest mentors during a formative phase of his life.


— Trump’s approach to crisis management continues to be guided by the Roy Cohn playbook. “This is McCarthyism!” Trump said, as he attacked Obama for supposedly wiretapping him, on Saturday. There was great irony to this. Cohn, after all, was Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations during the early 1950s. Two decades later, he became one of Trump’s biggest mentors during a formative phase of his life.

— In Politico Magazine last April, Michael Kruse documented the many ways that Cohn was more than just Trump’s lawyer: “Over a 13-year-period, Cohn brought his say-anything, win-at-all-costs style to all of Trump’s most notable … deals. Interviews with people who knew both men at the time say the relationship ran deeper than that — that Cohn’s philosophy shaped the real estate mogul’s worldview and the belligerent public persona visible in Trump’s campaign. … He brokered the gargantuan tax abatements and the mob-tied concrete work that made the Grand Hyatt hotel and Trump Tower projects. He wrote the cold-hearted prenuptial agreement before the first of his three marriages and filed the headline-generating antitrust suit against the National Football League. … ‘He considered Cohn a mentor,’ Mike Gentile, the lead prosecutor who got Cohn disbarred for fraud and deceit not long before he died, said in a recent interview.”

— Another reason the relationship with Cohn mattered: Roger Stone, his longtime political consigliere, first met Trump through Cohn. Stone seemed to have inside knowledge on the WikiLeaks document releases during the campaign….

— Not much has changed in how Trump does damage control over the past four decades, but one big thing is different: He now controls the very Justice Department that he and Cohn once countersued….


— Here’s the rub: Trump is not as cunning as he thinks. He’s playing checkers, not chess. (Or maybe it’s Connect Four.) While he’s proven adept at manipulating the New York tabloid world for decades, as the first president in American history with no prior political or military experience, he’s a rookie at playing the inside game. And it is coming back to haunt him. Bigly.

Cohn’s chapter in Washington didn’t end well. He overreached with his witch hunt, prompting Dwight Eisenhower to come after him. After being bested in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, he escaped to New York. McCarthy died of alcoholism after his Republican colleagues in the Senate voted to censure him.


1. Turning the FBI director against him:

James B. Comey asked the Justice Department this weekend to issue a statement refuting Trump’s claim that Obama ordered a wiretap, but the department did not do so. “The revelation underscores the fraught nature of the FBI’s high-profile investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election,” Abby Phillip and Ellen Nakashima note. “A key question fueling that inquiry is whether Trump associates colluded with Russian officials to help Trump win. … It is not clear why Comey … did not himself issue a statement to refute Trump’s claims.”

“Mr. Comey’s request is a remarkable rebuke of a sitting president, putting the nation’s top law enforcement official in the position of questioning Mr. Trump’s truthfulness,” notes the New York Times, which first reported the news. “The confrontation between the two is the most serious consequence of Mr. Trump’s weekend Twitter outburst, and it underscores the dangers of what the president and his aides have unleashed by accusing the former president of a conspiracy….”

2. Prodding the White House counsel to take risks he otherwise would not:

Trump’s tweets caught his top aides by surprise, and they spent Saturday trying to figure out how to respond and looking for any backup.

A senior White House official told The New York Times on Saturday that Donald McGahn was working to secure access to what he believed to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing some form of surveillance related to Trump and his associates. “The official offered no evidence to support the notion that such an order exists,” Michael D. Shear and Michael S. Schmidt reported. “It would be a highly unusual breach of the Justice Department’s traditional independence on law enforcement matters for the White House to order it to turn over such an investigative document. Any request for information from a top White House official about a continuing investigation would be a stunning departure from protocols intended to insulate the F.B.I. from political pressure. It would be even more surprising for the White House to seek information about a case directly involving the president or his advisers.” After the Times story blew up, another administration official walked back the earlier statements.

3. Trump has become the boy who cried wolf:

The president’s claims about Obama wiretapping were so indefensible that even his aides would not defend them directly, Aaron Blake notes, pointing to tweets from press secretary Sean Spicer and a Sunday show appearance by deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Let’s look into this,” Sanders said. “If this happened, if this is accurate, this is the biggest overreach and the biggest scandal.” Trump, of course, didn’t equivocate; he stated it as fact.

Trump has a very long history of making very serious allegations with no facts to back them up. Beyond his multi-year quest to prove Obama was not born in the United States, the president has said that his predecessor did not really attend Columbia University, insinuated last year that Obama bribed the New York attorney general to investigate Trump University and called him “the founder of ISIS.”

Among the other fallacious claims that Trump made during the campaign which he never offered any substantiation for:

  • The IRS might be auditing his tax returns “because of the fact that I’m a strong Christian.”
  • He suggested that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved with Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • He said there’s something “very fishy” about Vince Foster’s death.
  • He trafficked in rumors that Antonin Scalia may have been a victim of foul play. “They say they found a pillow on his face,” Trump said in one radio interview, “which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.”
  • He said vaccines may cause childhood autism.
  • He maintained that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks.
  • He insisted that a man who charged the security barricades at one of his rallies in Ohio was a member of the Islamic State. He based this false statement on a hoax Internet video he and his staff saw online.

What happens in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, during a natural disaster or amid an economic crisis? He’ll desperately need the American people to trust and rally behind him, but he will have drained the reservoir of goodwill. That is when Trump’s credibility gap is going to become a cataclysmic problem for his presidency and, frankly, for the country.

4. Making his White House look dysfunctional:

“Trump’s presidency has veered onto a road with no centerlines or guardrails,” Karen Tumulty writes in a smart analysis. “Trump’s response also has deepened doubts about his own judgment, not just in the face of the first crisis to confront his young presidency but in dealing with the challenges that lie ahead for the chief executive of the world’s most powerful nation. … The voice of a U.S. commander in chief carries much greater weight than that of just about anyone else on the planet. Trump’s detractors say the way he uses that platform has worrisome implications that go far beyond the sensation he creates on social media and his ability to dominate the news. … Nor does Trump appear to have a governing apparatus around him that can temper and channel his impulses.” Two quotes:

“We have as president a man who is erratic, vindictive, volatile, obsessive, a chronic liar, and prone to believe in conspiracy theories,” said conservative commentator Peter Wehner, who was the top policy strategist in George W. Bush’s White House. “And you can count on the fact that there will be more to come, since when people like Donald Trump gain power they become less, not more, restrained.

“When the president goes off and does what he did within the last few days, of just going ahead and tweeting without checking on things, there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong in terms of the discipline within the White House and how you operate,” said Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton and CIA director during the Obama administration, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

5. Emboldening conservatives to call for a full investigation:

Many congressional Republicans are already fatigued with having to defend Trump when he makes these kinds of claims, and the charges of illegal eavesdropping may prompt some to support something more aggressive than the ongoing probes by the House and Senate intelligence committees.

“I’m very worried that our president is suggesting that the former president’s done something illegally,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at a town hall meeting in his state on Saturday night. “I would be very worried if, in fact, the Obama administration was able to obtain a warrant lawfully about Trump campaign activity with foreign governments. So it’s my job as a United States senator to get to the bottom of this. I promise you I will.”

“We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the President’s allegations … demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in a statement. “A quest for the full truth, rather than knee-jerk partisanship, must be our guide if we are going to rebuild civic trust and health.”

“The president put that out there, and now the White House will have to answer as to exactly what he was referring to,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on “Meet the Press.” “Look, I didn’t make the allegation. I’m not the person that went out there and said it.”

6. Ensuring, more broadly, that the Russia connections continue to overshadow his domestic agenda:

If they have nothing to hide, why haven’t they been forthcoming? Trump and his spokeswoman categorically denied that any communication took place between the campaign and any foreign entity. “In fact, it is now clear it did happen,” Rosalind Helderman notes. “The past few days have brought a growing list of confirmed communications between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials, with each new revelation adding to a cloud of suspicion that hangs over the White House.… It is unclear why the White House has consistently denied contacts with Russian officials if the meetings that took place were innocuous. As a result, the confirmations of the encounters have trickled out through a series of news stories that have proved increasingly damaging to the Trump administration.”

Tomorrow’s confirmation hearing for Rod Rosenstein to become deputy attorney general will now be must-see TV. Because Sessions has recused himself, he will now oversee anything that comes from election-related investigations. Democrats will press him hard on everything related to the recusal and Russia:

I’ll use every possible tool to block DOJ Deputy AG nominee unless he commits to appoint independent special prosecutor

All of the heat on Trump is starting to have an impact on his foreign policy, as well: “Trump is telling advisers and allies that he may shelve, at least temporarily, his plan to pursue a deal with Moscow on the Islamic State group and other national security matters,” the Associated Press’s Julie Pace reports. “The reconsideration of a central tenet of his foreign policy underscores the growing political risks in forging closer relations with Russia.”

View the original post here.