Why Trump Can’t Let Go of His Wiretapping Claim

Why can’t the White House just admit that it doesn’t have any evidence for the allegation that Obama surveilled him?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

As the noted philosopher Idina Menzel has elucidated, it’s sometimes best to simply let things go. Yet despite the cold weather in Washington this week, the White House has failed to take the lessons of Frozen to heart.

Take the debate—raging, inexplicably, for nearly two weeks now—around President Trump’s claim, put forth in a series of tweets, that former President Barack Obama tapped his wires at Trump Tower. On Thursday, two senators looking into the allegation said they had seen no evidence for it, even as Trump’s chief spokesman assured reporters that he stands by the accusation.

Or stands by some version of it. Here are the original tweets, for reference:

These messages created a tizzy, because they constituted a very serious claim: Trump was suggesting that the president of the United States had illegally surveilled a candidate for president. (Obama, through a spokesman, has said the story is not true.)

Yet the White House communications office, likely sensing that the tweets were in danger of blowing up in its face, issued a statement last week saying it would not comment but that Trump wanted Congress to investigate. (Various members of Trump’s circle have studiously avoided putting too much of their own credibility behind the accusation.)

There were, from the start, a series of problems with the accusation. For example, Trump offered no evidence for any of them. For another, they corresponded neatly in time with a Breitbart story that made similar accusations, also without evidence; that story followed comments from right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who also made similar accusations, also without evidence.

Somehow, despite the utter lack of substantiation, the story continues to roll on. The White House has made one minor concession, claiming—semi-plausibly—that Trump did not mean a literal wire tap, but simply meant the Obama administration had been surveilling him somehow.

In an interview with Tucker Carlson on Wednesday, Trump tried to explain that wiretapping could mean many things.

“That really covers surveillance and many other things,” he said. “Nobody ever talks about the fact that [‘wire tap’] was in quotes, but that’s a very important thing.”

For reasons that escape this observer, this question of vocabulary has become a major part of the story, even though it appears to be a wholly irrelevant semantic discussion. One could go back through Trump’s tweets and look for proof that his use of quotation marks in the tweets shows he didn’t really mean what he said. (Brad Jaffy of NBC News has, in fact, done this yeoman’s service.) But why bother? If Obama improperly or illegally surveilled Trump, surely the method does not matter.

Indeed, Trump stuck to the fundamental accusation against Obama during his conversation with Carlson, saying he would send some new information to congressional investigators. “You’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks,” Trump said. During a hectic press briefing on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said of the allegation, “He stands by it.”

Spicer’s task in defending Trump was a little more difficult because earlier Thursday, Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner—the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—had issued a statement casting doubt on the claim.

“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016,” the senators said.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes had previously said he had seen no evidence of a wiretap, but the Burr-Warner statement is notable because of its breadth, saying that they saw no indications of any surveillance of any type.

On Thursday, a particularly querulous Spicer clashed with reporters on the surveillance claim. Spicer has at times in the last two weeks seemed puzzled as to why reporters are so eager to ask about Trump’s accusation, as though the press secretary does not understand the weight given to statements made by the president of the United States. On Thursday, he read a series of clips that reported on various intelligence investigations.

Spicer’s litany of clips was entertaining, in no small part because several of them came from The New York Times, which the White House has repeatedly denounced (and from which Spicer refused to take a question); as Timeswoman Maggie Haberman noted, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had denounced some of the same pieces publicly. Several of the stories were dubious, or based on anonymous sources—a practice that, as CBS’s Major Garrett wryly pointed out, the Trump administration has recently criticized harshly.

Even setting aside the double-standards on the Times and anonymous sources, the stories hardly proved that Trump himself had been targeted by surveillance, although they did suggest that some people linked to Trump may have been subject to some sort of investigation. No longer was the claim that Trump himself had been bugged at Trump Tower; now, it was that some people linked to the Trump campaign may have been surveilled. There is one clear case of this: former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after intelligence transcripts proved he had misrepresented his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But Flynn was apparently caught up in routine surveillance of Kislyak.

The result was surreal: Spicer, the tireless critic of the press, tried his best to convince the press that their stories must be taken as gospel, while the press, typically dubious of government, countered that it was the Senate Intelligence Committee that deserved the benefit of the doubt.

Why was Spicer reduced to relying on anonymous accounts from “fake news” organizations? If the Trump administration has some evidence that doesn’t consist of old press reports, surely it could offer it?

Peculiarly, the White House has refused to do that so far, saying that it’s more proper for Congress to do the investigation than it is for the administration to handle it, because of separation of powers (an explanation that makes no sense, especially given, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s willingness to investigate his predecessors), and that if Trump did ask his Justice Department to investigate, the press would probably attack him anyway (which is probably true).

Spicer dismissed questions about the Burr-Warner statement. “They’re not findings,” he said. “The statement clearly says at this time, they don’t believe that. They have yet to go through the information.”

This is not entirely true—lawmakers met with FBI Director James Comey to discuss the surveillance allegation, among others. Burr and Warner also issued a second statement after the Thursday briefing, sharply noting that they would not have made their statement had they not been fully briefed. (Spicer also earned an unusual rebuke and denial from the British intelligence agency GCHQ, which he mentioned during his review of clips.)

But insofar as senators have yet to review all information, one reason is that the Trump administration still has not turned it all over. In fact, when the Justice Department had a deadline to hand over any evidence it had to lawmakers this week, it instead requested more time.

This shouldn’t be that hard. On Wednesday, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, who wrote the story that seems to have set off Trump’s claim, appeared on Meet the Press Daily, where Chuck Todd asked him where he got the story idea.

“The story about how this article was written is very simple,” he said. “It was late at night and I was washing dishes listening to Mark Levin’s show from earlier in the day, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”

Pollak made no claim to have uncovered new information. Instead, he said his story brought a series of facts already reported together to make the case: “This was stuff that was being reported and just nobody had really pulled it together.”

You can read Pollak’s assembly of evidence and judge for yourself, though it’s hard to see how it proves Trump’s claim that Obama targeted him for surveillance, as he alleged.

The more important point here is that if all Pollak did was assemble already extant press clips, why can’t the White House do that? With each day, it seems more likely that the Trump team has no evidence to support the claim of wiretapping outside of what is in the Breitbart story, but is afraid to admit it and let the issue die. Instead, the president is wasting his own time, the press’s time, Spicer’s time, the Justice Department’s time, and Congress’s time. As long as the White House is going to make Senate committees look into vaguely plausible ideas for which it has no evidence, why not investigate something that many Americans believe in, like UFOs?