The bizarre allegations did not come courtesy of Vladimir Putin. Their source was not a mayhem-spreading autocrat eager to drive a wedge between firm democratic allies. No, they came directly from the White House itself.
On Thursday, in a surreal news briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer amplified on the president’s claim that his predecessor in the Oval Office had wiretapped the phones of then-candidate Trump. Reading from statements made by a commentator on Fox News, Spicer claimed that Obama “didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ’’ – the Government Communications Headquarters, the British intelligence agency.
The response from Britain has been a tad more vehement than what we’ve come to expect from our friends across the pond. “Complete garbage … rubbish,” said the former chairman of the British Parliament’s intelligence committee. “Nonsense … utterly ridiculous,” declared the GCHQ.
And while the White House, in effort to smooth deeply ruffled British feathers, has agreed not repeat the president’s scandalous claim, the president himself has assumed a characteristically more defiant stance. “We said nothing,” Trump insisted this afternoon at a joint White House news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.”
Anyone familiar with Trump will recognize this tactic. It is the same sleazy dodge he employed during the primaries in peddling a photo allegedly showing Ted Cruz’s father in the company of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Don’t ask me, ask the National Enquirer.
Incredibly, Trump has never had to pay a political price for his malign speech, shameless evasions and legion lies. To the contrary. By treating words as potent and weightless – potent, as tools to skewer opponents; and weightless, without lasting consequence – he greased his way to a spectacular political rise.
Until now. In the past three days, in the worlds of law and diplomacy, the president has been confronted with the consequences of his inflammatory speech. On Wednesday, Judge Derrick Watson issued a temporary restraining order blocking the administration’s revamped travel ban.
In concluding that the revised travel ban was “issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion,” Judge Watson did a shocking thing – he took the president at his word. Having heard the president call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Judge Watson did not accept the revised order’s quiet assurance that it “was not motivated by animus toward any religion.” Apparently a federal court will not let Trump unsay his earlier characterizations of the travel ban with the alacrity that Breitbart lets him unsay his touting of the birther myth.
The British are now trying to teach Trump a similar hard lesson. But Trump is a stubborn or dull pupil. In refusing to utter a word of regret, much less apology, he is sticking to his tried and true script. Apologies are recognitions of mistake and Trump by his own lights commits none.
And yet whether he acknowledges it or not, his words are costing him – not with his core supporters or his minions in the media, but with the coordinate branches of government and abroad.
The director of the FBI has dismissed the charges against Obama as false. The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have said they have seen nothing to suggest that Mr. Trump’s claim is true. And Friday, Representative Tom Cole, a prominent Republican congressman, described Trump’s accusation as “reckless,” adding, “I think President Obama is owed an apology.”
Again – we shouldn’t hold our breath. But nor should President Trump in the expectation that this will all go away. A president prone to conspiracy theories makes wild claims that turn members of his own government against him. It has the making of a blockbuster political thriller. One we just happen to be living.