It’s become clear that things in the nation’s capital are boiling down to this:
Leaders in Congress, intelligence, and law enforcement, are struggling to assure one man that an investigation he made-up never existed and that another investigation that he declines to accept is real.
The surreal dynamic reached its peak on Monday, as FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers established there’s no evidence to back up President Trump’s allegation that President Barack Obama ordered an illegally wiretap of Trump Tower. “I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said.
In a more volatile revelation, Comey also said the FBI was investigating probable links between the Trump campaign and Russian hacking in the 2016 election, an issue Trump tweeted just that morning was “made up” by Democrats to vindicate their loss in November.
The twin disclosures leave Trump alone. That’s a problem for the president, but it has the potential to create issues that go far beyond.
“The president’s commentary about surveillance allegations and the Russian election meddling investigation is dangerous,” Matthew Waxman, a Columbia law professor who held national security positions under President George W. Bush, told NBC News.
Waxman listed a number of potential consequences:
- Decomposing the relationship between the White House and intelligence community;
- Interfering with government agencies’ usual work;
- Exposing rifts with lawmakers in Congress;
- and signifying to allies that Russian aggression is not taken seriously.
But the biggest issue might be Trump’s integrity.
For those keeping score on Trump’s wiretap claim, Monday’s hearing means it’s now his word against the
- Department of Justice;
- Top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee;
- Top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee;
- former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
They all have said there’s no evidence to support his attack.
“Our credibility is shredding in front of us,” said retired Admiral James Stavridis, NBC analyst, in an interview with “Power Lunch.”
OUTSIDE THE US
Growing outside the United States, the list of those troubled by Trump’s claims includes the British intelligence agency GCHQ, which Spicer and Trump linked into the story by citing Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano’s suggestion that Obama ordered the agency to spy on his behalf.
On Monday, the NSA director joined GCHQ, which called the claim “utterly ridiculous” last week, in shooting down an assumption about its involvement. Rogers said Trump’s insinuation “clearly frustrates a key ally of ours.”
The president has not provided any persuasive evidence since lashing out at Obama on March 4 in a series of early-morning tweets. In a Fox interview last week, he defended himself by citing news reports that did not support his claim while loosely suggesting he might bring forth new evidence.
“I mean, let’s see whether or not I prove it,” he said at the time. “I just don’t choose to do it right now.”
TRUMP AGAINST THE WORLD
This me-against-the-world fight seems to suit the president. Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Monday that Trump would not extract his wiretap accusations in spite of Comey’s testimony and that it was only “one in a series of hearings.”
The combination of a president with his own facts who also never backs down has created a feedback loop in which suspicious statements raise new questions which then generate false responses which foster even more questions.
There were several White House tweets during the hearing that stood on shaky ground. One tweeted clip said Comey “admits” that the Obama White House could unmask an American citizen under surveillance, when in fact he said they have to go through the NSA or FBI. Another tweeted clip said Comey “refuses to deny” he briefed Obama on calls between fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But Comey was careful to tell lawmakers “It isn’t fair to draw conclusions simply because I say I can’t comment,” citing prohibitions against discussing ongoing investigations.
Trump’s still-unsubstantiated attack on Obama has drawn almost no support outside the White House and few Republicans are willing to adopt his live-and-let-live attitude toward Russia, which he only begrudgingly acknowledged was behind the campaign hacks in January.
This leaves President Trump all alone on an island of conspiracy theories.