There are numerous reasons why President Trump’s weekend tweetstorm against Barack Obama was not such a hot idea.
For one thing, Trump personalized his unsubstantiated charge that Obama had ordered him wiretapped by likening the former president to Nixon during Watergate, to “McCarthyism,” and saying he is a “bad” or “sick” guy. If there was some kind of surveillance related to an FBI probe, it’s extremely unlikely that Obama ordered it (and his office has flatly denied that).
If the president wanted to level a serious charge that Trump Tower was bugged, the media would have taken the story more seriously if he had offered evidence rather than reel off five tweets.
If past news reports were right that the FBI applied to the FISA national security court for surveillance related to a Trump company server suspected of communicating with a Russian bank, that would have required a probable cause finding of a crime or acting as a foreign agent.
But the most important point is that while Trump may have changed the subject from Jeff Sessions, he directed the media back to the investigation of any ties his campaign may have had with Russia.
There may turn out to be nothing at the end of this chase. But it moves the headlines away from the president’s efforts on immigration, health care, tax cuts and infrastructure.
Even before those tweets, when you strip away all the details about who in the Trump camp spoke to which Russian at which time, there are two powerful forces driving the coverage of this constantly changing story.
One is clearly partisan: Democrats are hoping there is something sinister in all these past contacts with Moscow folks that would cast doubt on his election and undermine his presidency.
But the other is shock and horror within Washington’s foreign policy establishment that Trump is shattering the longtime consensus for treating Russia as a bitter enemy. Since the president has said nice things about Vladimir Putin, the thinking goes, there must be a nefarious reason involving some web of secret deals.
After all, in this view, why was Trump so unconcerned with Russian attempts to hack the election, even if he was the beneficiary?
That’s the bigger picture here. The bipartisan experts—remember, Republicans were strongly anti-Russia in the pre-Trump era—don’t like the way the new guy is messing with their geopolitical alliances.
Of course, a new administration not exactly steeped in traditional damage control is inadvertently fueling the story. The coverup becomes worse than the non-crime. In other words, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn and former campaign aide Carter Page all initially denied the past contacts with Sergey Kislyak, only to acknowledge them after press reports. Now it may have been perfectly appropriate to have those conversations while working for either the Republican nominee or president-elect. But the incomplete responses haven’t helped, though Sessions, as a veteran senator, was savvy enough to recuse himself from any investigation.
But would the story have as much fuel if Trump was engaging in the typically adversarial stance against the Putin regime?
Politico’s Susan Glasser, a former Moscow correspondent, describes the revulsion among the foreign relations crowd. She says Trump “finally united Democrats and many Republicans, hawks and doves, neocons and Obamians, in a frenzy of worry.
Whether left or right, fierce advocates of ‘soft power’ or proponents of the ‘bomb, bomb, bomb’ school of international relations, most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment had spent the hours since noon on January 20 in alternating states of fear, rage, dismay, bewilderment and mental exhaustion…
“They were all asking the same questions: Would he destroy the liberal international order? Hand our secrets to the Russians? Ruin NATO? Blunder into another war in the Middle East after he was done firing all the State Department bosses and sending uncooperative national security bureaucrats into exile? Did he have any idea what he was doing?”
We should absolutely have a serious debate American policy toward Russia. But the media are mesmerized by the FBI investigation of Trump associates. Journalists smell blood when they see shifting explanations and unanswered questions. But the trail may ultimately lead nowhere.
To those who say this is fake news, the controversy just prompted the attorney general to recuse himself from a federal investigation. And would those same people be so dismissive if we were talking about Hillary Clinton’s attorney general and whether her people had secret ties to Russia?
But to the extent that Trump’s more cooperative approach to Russia is the elephant in the room here, remember this: The president was elected after making no secret of his attitude toward Putin.