Donald Trump is a master troll, and Saturday was the pièce de résistance, his masterpiece. With a single tweet accusing Barack Obama of tapping his phones, Trump has thrown the nation’s politics into a state of frenzied disarray once again.
In the ensuing fire drill, everyone assumed their proper roles. Major newspapers and investigative journalists headed off to respond to his claims. Senior members of Congress abandoned whatever they were doing to address the media. The Secretaries of State and Defense rushed to assure nervous allies across the globe that they should ignore the lunatic in the White House.
This time, Trump amped it up a notch, suggesting that the FBI and the former President orchestrated illegal surveillance against him. And they rose to the bait. FBI Director Jim Comey demanded that the Department of Justice refute Trump's claim and defend the integrity of the FBI. Caught between defending the integrity of Jim Comey and Donald Trump, officials apparently checked to see who signed their paychecks and declined to come to Comey's defense.
Then--no doubt to Trump's glee--Barack Obama denied Trump's accusation. Trump's trolling worked; by his denial, Obama gave Trump supporters all the evidence they needed to know that Trump's claim must be true, and no doubt deepened their resolve to defend him in the escalating battles that are inevitably in store.
Perhaps the most successful impact of Trump’s tweets on Saturday is that he has framed the story as being about illegal actions by the FBI and Barack Obama. There is no evidence, people are screaming, there is no conspiracy. But they are wrong. There may not be a conspiracy, but there certainly is evidence.
The story began last Thursday evening on Mark Levin's radio show. Levin, a conservative talk radio star and former Reagan administration official, laid out his case that Barack Obama wiretapped Donald Trump prior to the election and orchestrated a "silent coup" against him. On Fox News, Levin walked through public newspaper accounts of the FBI seeking FISA court approval for surveillance because of evidence that suggested collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to support the election of Donald Trump. Notably, Levin did not suggest the taps were illegal or done without warrants, he simply connected that fact of FBI surveillance of Trump associates to Obama's presence, and concluded "police state."
Trump is an eager consumer of right-wing conspiracy agitprop, and by Saturday morning the Obama silent coup theory was the subject of a Trump twitter storm.
The facts are in Trump's favor, but facts and truth are not the same thing. By all accounts, it appears that the FBI did have active wiretaps that included individuals in Trump Tower. When those taps were put into place, Barack Obama was the President, and the FBI by definition worked for him. Therefore, by Trump's syllogistic logic--sufficient logic for his followers to buy in--Obama "had" the phones in Trump Tower tapped.
But the facts as laid out by Mark Levin actually describe a somewhat different story. Unlike Donald Trump's intimation that the taps were illegal and orchestrated by Obama, Levin's own argument described them as legal taps approved by the FISA judge, specifically targeting Russian banks suspected of wiring funds to the Trump campaign.
Levin never makes the case--or even suggests--that Barack Obama directed anything the FBI did. The fact that the White House received information on the investigation--which Levin does highlight in a manner suggesting there was a conspiracy--is well known. The fact that Barack Obama knew of the investigation into the relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign and did not make that information public, or otherwise act on it, remains a particularly sore point for the Clintons and many Democrats.
The evidence Levin complied pointed to the Russia dossier, which was first made public earlier this year. The 35 page dossier comprises a series of intelligence memoranda--prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele--regarding communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign over a seven month period from June through December of last year.
The dossier was originally published by Buzzfeed on January 10th, the same day that CNN reported that Donald Trump had been briefed about its contents by the Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. The contents of the dossier were widely greeted by the media with skepticism, as the information could not be independently verified. Clearly, however, by the fact that the most senior members of the intelligence community briefed the President-elect about its contents, the substance of the dossier was not being dismissed out of hand.
And now, Mark Levin and Donald Trump have reminded the world that the FBI has indeed taken the dossier seriously, and that it has been leading a coordinated criminal investigation into evidence connecting the Trump campaign to Russian efforts to subvert the American presidential election. Somewhere, in hiding for his life since the publication of the dossier, Christopher Steele must be smiling at the irony of Trump's tweet.
The irony is that through his raucous defense of the President last Thursday, Mark Levin unintentionally smoked out the new, presidential Donald Trump, who had made an appearance before a joint session of Congress just two days earlier. The world understood that the test of the new Donald Trump was whether, in the wake of his widely acclaimed speech, he could show the self-discipline to avoid one of his 6 a.m. off-his-meds tweetstorms, lashing out at who-knows-who for having done who-knows-what. And there it was, at 6:35 a.m. on Saturday, an enraged Trump took Levin’s bait and ran with it, insinuating that Barack Obama and the FBI had illegally tapped his phone; accusing his predecessor in the White House of “police state” tactics.
Once again, Donald Trump has trolled the country to great effect, but the substance of what he and Mark Levin have done is to bring the focus of the FBI investigation to light. Up until now, Jim Comey has been reluctant to talk in detail about the FBI investigation into the relationships between Russia and the Trump organization. Now ― particularly if the Department of Justice declines to refute Trump’s allegations ― Comey may have little choice but to acknowledge the direction of the FBI investigation into the substance of the relationships laid out in Christopher Steele’s dossier. Tweets that Trump imagined might put Comey in a corner and neuter the investigations underway by the intelligence agencies might, at the end of the day, have the opposite impact.
Since Saturday, the media has focused on whether there is evidence to support what they suggest is Trump’s claim that the FBI and Barack Obama conducted illegal surveillance against him. But they are missing the point. Trump never actually suggests in his tweets that anything illegal was done. The real story is the one hiding in plain site: The Russia dossier. That is the story that Trump has been seeking to evade since Carter Page ― a long-time Trump associate who appears several times in the dossier ― disappeared from the campaign in mid-2016. It is the story Donald Trump and Mark Levin inadvertently brought back to life this week, and that ― because of Trump’s Saturday morning tweetstorm ― we now know that the FBI is continuing to pursue.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.