It was a long 25 hours. But the White House ended its silence Sunday morning with an official statement responding to a series of extraordinary tweets by President Donald Trump the day before.
Trump had claimed, without evidence or explanation, that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump’s phone lines during the 2016 election. The White House confirmed on Sunday that it would neither explain the basis for the president’s accusation or offer additional comment on the matter. The president is calling for a congressional investigation into the alleged wiretapping, the statement said.
Guessing at a president’s motivations has long been a national pastime for political junkies and journalists, but never quite like this.
There is, however, an unmistakable familiarity to Trump’s latest accusations against Obama. Without knowing whether Trump’s tweets were based on an intelligence report, a news report, a conspiracy theory, or something else entirely—one must consider the possibility that the unsubstantiated claims are, in fact, a political strategy. Trump has peddled a lie as a way to delegitimize Obama in the past.
“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office,” Trump tweeted on August 6, 2012, “and told me that @BarackObama's birth certificate is a fraud.”
This was more than a year after Obama had publicly shared a copy of his birth certificate. The president was finally compelled to do so because of Trump’s birther crusade, a years-long attempt by Trump to convince people that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore not eligible to be president of the United States. (Obama was born in Hawaii.)
It wasn’t surprising to see Trump revive birther claims despite evidence that he was wrong. And with three month’s before the presidential election, one Trump hoped Obama would lose, Trump reached for a classic tactic of his: Shock and distract.
Are Trump’s wiretapping claims the new Birtherism?
It’s certainly understandable why Trump would want to change the narrative at this moment in his early presidency. The questions over Trump administration ties to Russia are growing louder. Trump was said to be incensed over the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from investigations into Russia’s role in the presidential election, according to reports in The New York Times and elsewhere.
When Trump gets mad, he tweets. He goes on the offensive. Trump is a master at whipping the press into a frenzy. By retraining the press corps’s focus on the wiretapping accusation, perhaps Trump and his advisors—one of whom is the former chairman of the right-wing news website that helped spread that accusation—are trying to dissipate attention on Russia.
After all, the White House’s statement on Sunday morning linked questions about Trump’s Russia ties with questions about a possible wiretap: “President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.”
A call for an investigation might otherwise signal the seriousness of an allegation. But past investigations of Trump’s charges have sometimes served to debunk his claims. At the height of Birtherism, for example, Trump dispatched investigators to Honolulu in search of Obama’s long-form birth certificate, which had not yet been released.
“Today, I’m very proud of myself,” Trump said before a gaggle of reporters on the day Obama’s birth certificate was made public. Trump appeared to be proud of himself again, last year, when he finally admitted that Obama was born in the United States. “I finished it,” he said, claiming falsely that Hillary Clinton was to blame for a starting a controversy he’d somehow settled.
Trump has a favorite political reference he employs to insinuate that Obama is guilty of misconduct in office. “Why does the press protect him?” Trump had tweeted of Obama in May of 2012. “Is this another Watergate?”
Now, as critics ask the same question about Trump, he has chosen again to attack Obama. “This is Nixon/Watergate,” Trump tweeted on Saturday, under pressure, returning to his old playbook.