The Fix | Analysis
March 8, 2017 at 9:39 AM
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which means he's in charge of investigating President Trump's evidence-free allegation that President Barack Obama wiretapped his offices.
But Nunes doesn't seem particularly worried that the current president accused the former president of a crime. Echoing so many Republican defenses of Trump's tweets, he suggested Tuesday that Trump's allegation simply shouldn't be taken at face value.
Here's what Nunes said:
The president is a neophyte to politics. He's been doing this a little over a year. And I think a lot of the things that he says, you guys sometimes take literally. Sometimes he doesn't have 27 lawyers and staff looking at what he does — which is, I think, at times refreshing and at times can also lead us to have to be sitting at a press conference like this, answering questions that you guys are asking. But at the end of the day, I think tweets are a very transparent way for a politician of any rank to communicate with their constituents. So I don't think we should attack the president for tweeting.
There are a couple straw men here. One is the idea that Trump needs "27 lawyers" reading his tweets before they go out. The implication is that Trump didn't really know what he was saying would be a big deal.
But Trump clearly recognized the magnitude of it. He even said in the tweets that it would constitute a "Nixon/Watergate"-esque scandal.
It would be one thing if Trump just misread or misinterpreted that Breitbart report and mused about how odd it was that Obama had been wiretapping him. (This allegation is based on unconfirmed reports and has been denied by FBI Director James B. Comey and former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.) But he recognized the seriousness of his accusation in real time, and said as much.
The second straw man is that Trump shouldn't be attacked for tweeting. This is true. Tweeting is great. I do it a lot. I do not, however, accuse my colleagues of breaking the law based on dubious evidence. That's the issue here: Whether it's okay for a president of the United States to so haphazardly make claims with such far-reaching implications — saying things that, if true, would upend American democracy.
There is a temptation to think that, given the less-formal medium, the things Trump says on Twitter should be taken somewhat less seriously. It's just 140 characters, and it's in real time. But the words of a president carry weight no matter where they are uttered. They can start wars and change the course of history in an instant.
And as I've argued before, this suggestion that some of Trump's words should be taken literally and others shouldn't leaves all of us in the impossible position of figuring out which words fall into which category. This approach also has the added benefit to Trump of being able to excuse basically anything he says that is offensive or incorrect. It's a Get Out of Jail Free card with no limits to its usage:
I'll even admit here that I agree with them that Trump probably doesn't mean to be taken literally at all times. But if we're to adopt this approach to the Trump presidency, there is absolutely no accountability. If Trump doesn't follow through on something he promised to do over and over again — like putting Hillary Clinton in jail — he can just argue that this wasn't supposed to be taken literally. If Trump doesn't follow through on his promise to tax companies who move jobs overseas, he can just flash the Get Out of Jail Free card again. He didn't mean to say that thing he said over and over again, somehow. But this other thing that he actually succeeded on? He meant that one.
It's not just the news media dealing with this dilemma now. It's also lawmakers such as Nunes who have to account for and react to what Trump says.
In his comments Tuesday, Nunes acknowledged that he wasn't quite sure how serious Trump was about his allegation — and whether it was a direct charge or simply a question Trump was raising, as the White House has maintained.
"The point of — if I'm understanding the point of [the tweets] -- is he's asking the question about whether or not he was — was he or any of his associates targeted," Nunes said. "And I think it's a valid question — if indeed it was a question — that if you look at [former national security adviser] General [Michael] Flynn, why was he being recorded? Was it incidental collection like we all assume, or was it something else?"
So now the guy in charge of investigating Trump's claim isn't sure how serious the president was or what he truly meant.
Trump may be "a political neophyte," but he now has myriad examples of people apparently taking his tweets too literally. It might be time to be a little more literal.