On Wednesday, one of the most zany press conferences in recent memory took place on Capitol Hill. It featured the two most important members of the House Intelligence Committee ― Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Democratic ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). They appeared at a bank of microphones, to try to clear the air about a claim made by President Donald Trump ― the assertion that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had ordered the intelligence community to drop wiretaps on Trump’s phones at his Manhattan redoubt, Trump Tower.
But what made the whole affair so absurd wasn’t the substance of the two representatives’ remarks. Rather, it was the straight-facedness of it all. There were Nunes and Schiff, speaking in their best tones of gravitas, standing soberly, with stern faces, before a smattering of reporters. Absent any context, an observer would have looked upon these proceedings and assumed that some grave matter of state was being discussed. That something vital and necessary was at stake. That there was something, based fundamentally in the rational world, that had led everybody to this point.
But on Thursday afternoon, any sense of rational order was dashed anew, when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer took to the White House press room, and lengthily lectured the assembled reporters about how Trump’s claims were valid and important ― despite the fact that the highest-ranking members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees had spoken with the same clear voice, insisting that there was no evidence to support Trump’s claim.
Against that, Spicer had no countermeasure at hand other than brute force ― so he went on and on, reading news stories that everyone in the room had already heard, none of which advanced Trump’s specific accusation of an Obama-ordered wiretap campaign.
I think it’s important to remember that the root cause of all this michegas is the fact that Trump is an emotionally unstable, fake news-loving nitwit, and that this specific outpouring of nitwittery has now consumed a lot of the time and energy of people on the government payroll who are, ostensibly, serious.
Is it necessary to return to where all of this began? The timeline is very easily reconstructed from the record. Trump gave a joint address to Congress on Feb. 28. It was deemed a success. He was so happy to bask in the media’s adulation that he decided to hold off on issuing any further versions of his Muslim travel ban because he didn’t want the goodwill to end.
But it did end, rather suddenly, a day later, when news broke that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, during the presidential campaign ― directly contradicting testimony during his confirmation hearings. Sessions succumbed to the public pressure to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s inquiries into Russian involvement in the U.S. election, a move that incensed Trump and touched off another angry Friday evening confrontation with his staff.
Sometime Saturday morning, a seething Trump awoke and read a crazy piece on Breitbart news, which related the strange accusations of right-wing radio host Mark Levin, in which Levin alleged that Obama had wiretapped Trump’s phones at Trump Tower as part of a “silent coup.” And, as is his wont, Trump impulsively tweeted about it, furthering this nonsense and plunging all of Washington into another round of, “WTF just happened?”
Up to this point, of course, the entire world had been aware that there was an ongoing probe into alleged Russian skullduggery and the possible connections to members of Trump’s inner circle. Also well known: The investigation involved surveillance. Over the summer, the FBI sought a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that would allow the agency to monitor transactions between “four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials,” and two Russian banks. That warrant was denied; the FBI was successful on the second filing, which only named the banks as targets.
Obviously, all of this was at the very least a distraction, if not a problem, for the Trump White House. But Trump’s accusation that Obama had dropped wiretaps on his office was an entirely new level of weird. And it did not go unnoticed that Trump had no evidence to back up his claim. A spokesman for Obama issued a near-immediate denial, which was soon followed by one from Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper. Intelligence officials contacted by The Washington Post called the allegation “highly unlikely.” And FBI Director James Comey immediately demanded that the Justice Department publicly refute Trump’s wild assertion.
But the crazy had only begun to leach into the Beltway’s bloodstream. And the beating heart of the lunacy was the White House itself, which seemingly pursued several contradictory paths at the same time. You had Kellyanne Conway insisting that the reason no one in the larger intelligence community could answer to the claim was because Trump had “information and intelligence that the rest of us do not.” Yet at the same time, Trump was demanding a congressional investigation. But if he had this intelligence, why force Congress to find its own? This was the contradiction at the center of a remarkable exchange between Spicer and NBC News’ Hallie Jackson during the March 7 White House briefing.
None of this really went over well on Capitol Hill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Service Committee, summed up the mood in his demand that Trump “either retract or provide the information” that proved his outlandish claim. Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee was demanding the Justice Department furnish evidence, which the department could only struggle to do.
With Capitol Hill plunged into chaos, the Trump White House continued to muddy the waters in two ways. First, as The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone documents at length, the administration, in concert with pro-Trump news sources, attempted to reverse-engineer the news ― insisting that the only thing that Levin and Breitbart had done was re-report news that had already been fully established in mainstream media accounts.
This was the game plan that Spicer attempted to run anew at Thursday’s press briefing. But as Calderone noted, we’re well past this. Forensic analyses of these claims found that this notion ― that Obama’s wiretapping of Trump Tower was a thing that had already been widely, and specifically, reported on by the media ― was wanting, to say the least.
The second thing the White House began doing in earnest, once it became clear that it could not produce the necessary evidence, was to embark on a mission to modify and walk back Trump’s original claim, looking for some credibility-restoring sweet spot. And so, we were treated to the spectacle of Spicer, in a previous briefing, telling the White House press room that Trump did not intend to necessarily imply that his phones were wiretapped when he accused Obama of tapping his phones. “The president used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities.”
NBC News’ Bradd Jaffy, however, collected the receipts. You’ll note that Trump was exceedingly specific in his accusations ― this had nothing to do with surveillance activities, “broadly.”
All of this culminated in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, which quickly became such an orgy of goalpost-moving that RedState’s Jay Caruso called it a “rambling mess.” That may be a charitable assessment! But Caruso makes some pretty keen observations, such as this one (emphasis mine):
This is where President Trump makes me nervous. He’s used the “Other people have said it” excuse for unfounded allegations he’s said before. For example, in the case of supposed voter fraud, he stated in an interview with ABC News, “lots of people are saying they saw things happen.” It’s as if he believes as long as he thinks somebody is levying an accusation of some kind, it’s safe for him to repeat it.
Do you recognize that impulse? I do, because it was central to Trump’s entire political identity. This is birtherism in another form, on another topic. And it’s the classic Trumpian version of the same. He’s glommed onto someone else’s crazy idea, retrofitted it to serve his ends, and is endeavoring mightily to stretch this insanity out for as long as he can ― and to claim what spare advantage he can ― as a distraction to cover his own shortcomings. The attempts to reverse-engineer reality, to constantly move the goalposts, and to refuse to acknowledge the truth ― that this is all just a rambling conspiracy theory wholly divorced from the rational world ― are the birther stock-in-trade. (You might also recall that Trump once promised that “investigators” he’d personally dispatched to Hawaii were always perpetually on the verge of some big, earth-shaking discovery.)
And that’s to say nothing of the birthers’ eternal drive to get someone else to do their work for them. Trump’s demand that Congress prove his allegations for him is a behavior that every reporter who’s had contact with someone from the birther movement will immediately recognize ― it’s always someone else’s responsibility to make sense of their lunacy.
Of course, Trump was never a true believer in the birther movement ― he was just an opportunistic dabbler. And even now, as Trump and his White House promise that there are revelations to come ― he alleges that “some very interesting items” will be “coming to the forefront over the next two weeks” ― I think I have a sense of how this will end: Trump will say the media started the Obama wiretap accusations, and that he “ended” them.
We’ve seen it before. We’ll see it again. Maybe next time, everyone will remember that Trump likes to pull these nutter stunts before several congressional committees and intelligence agencies are drawn into the mania.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.