Why Trump Is Accusing Obama of Wiretapping

The president’s attacks on his predecessor may be intended to discredit the results of any inquiry into his 2016 campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Why, last Saturday, did President Trump accuse former President Obama of wiretapping him? In its story tracing the accusation from Mark Levin’s radio show to Breitbart’s front page to Trump’s Twitter Feed, The New York Times offered a theory: Trump wanted to distract the press from bad news.

“To his adversaries,” wrote Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, “Mr. Trump’s bomb-throwing seems like a calculated strategy to distract from another story he wants to avoid,” the story of “Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself last week from any federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia in response to reports that he had met with Russia’s ambassador during the presidential race.”

But the Times questioned the wisdom of that strategy. “In shifting the story,” Baker and Haberman noted, “Mr. Trump also kept the Russia investigation front and center, rather than his initiatives on health care, taxes or jobs. His first address to Congress, which won him plaudits for being presidential, was last week but now feels ages ago.”

Moreover, when presidents try to divert the media’s gaze, it’s usually toward good news. In this case, Trump was advertising the possibility that people around him were under criminal investigation. “If an eavesdropping warrant had been approved,” noted the Times, “it would mean that a judge was convinced that someone in Mr. Trump’s circle might have committed a crime or acted as a foreign agent.”

So why did Trump do it? The Times ignored another, more plausible, theory: Trump isn’t distracting from the investigation; he’s seeking to discredit it . By alleging that Obama personally ordered his wiretapping, Trump is claiming that partisanship motivates the investigation into his campaign’s Russian ties. The law enforcement agencies conducting that investigation, therefore, aren’t independent and apolitical; they’re Democratic plants. And by sowing doubt about their motives, Trump’s lays the groundwork for discounting their findings, particularly if they ultimately implicate Trump or any of his associates.

The claim that Obama and his loyalists are orchestrating the investigations has been bouncing around pro-Trump media for a while. On March 3, Breitbart published an article headlined, “Obama Encouraged ‘Deep State’ ‘De Facto Coup’ Against Trump.” The same day, Rush Limbaugh warned that “Barack Obama and the Democrat Party are attempting to sabotage the Trump presidency.” Citing a radio broadcast by conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin the night before, Breitbart on Friday, March 5 ran a headline entitled, “Mark Levin to Congress: Investigate Obama’s ‘Silent Coup’ vs. Trump.”

“When Mr. Trump became aware of the claims in the Breitbart article,” the Times reported, “they were appealing to him.” They were appealing because, according to the Washington Post, Trump thinks “his presidency is being tormented in ways known and unknown by a group of Obama-aligned critics, federal bureaucrats and intelligence figures.” Levin and Breitbart’s conspiracy theory not only fed Trump’s sense of victimhood, it also offered him a roadmap for how to fight back.

The striking thing about Trump’s Saturday morning tweets is how personal they were. They didn’t mention the Justice Department and FBI, the institutions that are actually investigating Trump’s associates’ Russian ties, and which would have petitioned a FISA court to eavesdrop on his communications or those of any Trump associates. They didn’t even mention the “Obama administration.” In every tweet Trump mentioned President Obama himself, in the final one even calling him a “Bad (or sick) guy!”

By placing Obama at the center of the Russia investigations, Trump undermines the notion that the Justice Department and FBI are independent bodies seeking to enforce the law. Instead, they become Democratic front groups. The strategy resembles the one Trump has been employing against the press. If the mainstream media constitutes “the opposition party” —if their professional mission is a sham and they’re just Democratic Party hacks—then nothing they uncover about Trump’s Russia ties need be believed. It’s the same with the career attorneys at the Justice Department.

That argument is particularly vital for Trump now that Sessions has recused himself, and someone Trump can’t as easily influence will be overseeing the Department’s Russia investigation. By linking those investigators to Obama, Trump’s allies can discredit them. Already on Sunday, Levin told Fox News that Obama officials “have squirreled their appointees into the [Justice Department] bureaucracy.”

No one lives on Mount Olympus. Government lawyers, judges and journalists are all fallible. They are all vulnerable to bias and self-interest. But prior presidents have generally given them the benefit of the doubt. Prior presidents have assumed, absent contrary evidence, that they are motivated by professional standards, not rank partisanship. Trump does not. He has questioned the integrity of Judge Gonzalo Curiel and of vast swaths of the press. And now he is preparing to question the integrity of the career officials investigating his Russia ties.

They are all corrupt. They are all agents of the opposition, part of the massive conspiracy to deny Trump his rightful triumph. And thus, the independent standards by which they judge his actions are a sham. There are no independent standards. There is only the truth that comes from Trump himself.