Donald Trump's allegation that Obama wiretapped his phone is just the latest in a series of nearly nonsensical claims that have real consequences.
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For years, Donald Trump has been—hmmmmm, how do I put this, exactly?—saying stuff that isn't true. This was fine back when he was merely posing as his own PR guy or inflating the amount he gave to charity—if he was a bullshit artist, he was an artist, a man who built skyscrapers of bluster and hype, who made mountains from molehills just by insisting he saw a mountain, a beautiful mountain, people have called it one of the world's finest, most luxurious peaks. When he spread the nonsense rumor that Barack Obama wasn't born in the US (a falsehood he didn't renounce until September), even then the stakes seemed low. Trump was just one FOX News sideshow among many. Who cared what he said or what he thought?
Now, of course, we all have to care what Trump says and thinks, because he is president. The problem is, he's still saying stuff that isn't true.
This Saturday morning, a reportedly grumpy Trump went on Twitter to say, "Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found.... How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!" Then Trump went golfing.
Immediately, diligent reporters and analysts went to work deciphering Trump's tweets not unlike Talmudic scholars teasing out the implications of a particularly obscure bit from the Hebrew Bible. What wiretap? Is he saying Obama ordered surveillance on him? How did Trump learn about this?
A rundown published Sunday by security expert Julian Sanchez lays out the facts that can be laid out: Yes, there are reports that the FBI was trying to monitor some Russian banks suspected of having some sort of contact with individuals in Trump's orbit. (This was a part of the broader investigation into some Trump aides' alleged Russian ties.) No, that doesn't mean that the FBI had any concrete evidence of wrongdoing on anyone's part, or that Trump himself was ever a target of surveillance. It certainly doesn't mean that Obama personally ordered any surveillance—an allegation his former officials have strenuously denied—or that the surveillance we're talking about has anything to do with phones. As for what inspired Trump's pre-golf tweetstorm, it appears to be a Breitbart article that aggregated some commentary by a conservative radio host, then rather baselessly concluded that "the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign." The president appears to have misread that misleading analysis, then concluded that Obama had ordered a "tapp" of his phone.
On Sunday, FBI director James Comey reportedly asked the Justice Department to say publicly that Trump's tweets were nonsense—a request DOJ officials denied, but leaks about Comey's request did the job for him anyway. Meanwhile, political talk-show hosts asked Trump spokespeople whether the president was tweeting based on some secret information he had access to, and were summarily stonewalled. Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Good Morning America host George Stephanopoulos that Trump didn't believe Comey's denial, though wouldn't say where he got his information. Kellyanne Conway similarly failed to cite any particular source.
Ordinarily journalists shy away from asking presidents whether they're lying, but Trump has provided everyone with more than enough reasons to doubt him. He previously "believed" that there were millions of cases of voter fraud during the election—an allegation that he dropped, possibly because he got bored of it—and that Russia wasn't behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. It's not clear whether he actually puts stock in these phony narratives or whether he's just trying to get the media to respond to bogus claims rather than chase other, more important, stories, but it doesn't really matter since the effect is the same either way—when the president says something, it has to be taken seriously.
That means that House Republicans are going to dutifully investigate the possibility that Obama ordered an illegal wiretap, even though there's just as much evidence of that as there's evidence that Obama was building FEMA concentration camps purple monkey dishwater. (Even some Republicans were careful not to say that they agreed with Trump's allegations.)
If Trump is going to base his pronouncements on news articles that he doesn't read that closely, occasionally this sort of thing is going to happen—the government will respond to what the president says, no matter how nonsensical it is. That will inevitably suck tax dollars, the energies of congressional staffs and federal agencies into pointless controversies, which the media will have to report on. This dynamic is almost certain to continue; as conservative Peter Wehner told the Washington Post this weekend, "When people like Donald Trump gain power they become less, not more, restrained."
The danger is that over the course of four years Trump will have a lot of chances to talk nonsense. Will he wind up ordering an investigation of the (largely fictitious) voter fraud? Or demand that food stamp recipients be forced to take drug tests? Will he try to halt the Jenkem epidemic in the US, look into the origins of that weird "S" symbol, or attempt to untangle the whole BOFA thing? While we ask questions about this supposed wiretap, we should also ask the more pressing question: What article is Donald Trump going to read next?
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