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Opinion Anatomy of a fake scandal, ginned up by right-wing media and Trump

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President Trump started off this morning as he often does, by settling in to watch the festival of nincompoopery that is “Fox & Friends.” On the show, he saw something that he believes vindicates the bizarre and false charge he made that Barack Obama was tapping his phones during the presidential campaign.

I’ll try to sort through the substance of all this. But I also want to make a broader argument about how Trump’s support system — inside his government but especially in the conservative media and on Fox, which is where he apparently gets most of his intelligence information — is playing to his worst instincts, harming him politically, and making his presidency even more dangerous.

Today’s antics all started with a report on “Fox & Friends” in which correspondent Adam Housley reported that a high-ranking Obama administration official had requested the “unmasking” of the names of Trump officials who were caught up in surveillance of foreign targets. Ordinarily, when a U.S. person shows up in such surveillance — say, talking to a Russian ambassador whose communications are being monitored — that person’s identity is blacked out in reports on the surveillance. While Housley did not identify the Obama administration official, he did say that Trump associates were being picked up by this surveillance for a year before Trump took office.

Then we get this report from Eli Lake, identifying former national security adviser Susan Rice as the Obama official who requested the unmasking. I’d like to highlight this passage:

Rice’s requests to unmask the names of Trump transition officials does not vindicate Trump’s own tweets from March 4 in which he accused Obama of illegally tapping Trump Tower. There remains no evidence to support that claim.
But Rice’s multiple requests to learn the identities of Trump officials discussed in intelligence reports during the transition period does highlight a longstanding concern for civil liberties advocates about U.S. surveillance programs. The standard for senior officials to learn the names of U.S. persons incidentally collected is that it must have some foreign intelligence value, a standard that can apply to almost anything. This suggests Rice’s unmasking requests were likely within the law.

I’d say that if members of the Trump team were in communication with foreign actors who were under surveillance, that damn sure has “foreign intelligence value,” and it’s not too surprising that the national security adviser would want to know about it. We’re talking about associates of a presidential candidate communicating with representatives of a foreign power.

Let’s back up for a moment and go through the series of events here to get some context. Here’s what has happened, with the caveat that some of the information is sketchy:

1. On March 4, President Trump sends out a series of tweets claiming that Barack Obama tapped his phones, apparently because of an article Trump saw on Breitbart. In subsequent days, the FBI director, the NSA director, the former director of national intelligence and everyone in any position to know make clear that not only didn’t Obama tap Trump’s phones, the president has no power to order phone-tapping.

The White House has been defending President Trump’s claim, without evidence, that former president Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on him in 2016. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

2. Because Trump never backs down from even the most ridiculous lie, his employees and allies are now required defend his claim. So spokesperson Sean Spicer argues that because in a different tweet Trump put the words “wire tapping” in quotes, that means he was referring to “a whole host of surveillance types” and not his phones being tapped, despite the fact that he said “President Obama was tapping my phones.” Trump himself will later pick up this argument.

3. Two White House officials, Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis, locate intelligence reports that include Trump officials in communication with Russians under surveillance by American intelligence agencies. The White House says they came across those reports “in the ordinary course of business” and were not actually looking for something that would back up Trump’s claim; you can decide how plausible you find that. In any case, they then call Rep. Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, to the White House so he can view the information. Nunes then holds a news conference announcing the find and briefs Trump on what Trump’s own staff has told him.

All of this was designed to allow Trump to say that he was right all along that he was being targeted by Obama, which of course he does.

4. I’m skipping over some smaller developments and plenty of details. But today, we have the following series of events: Trump officials leak that Rice requested the unmasking of the identities of Trump associates who were in communication with foreigners under surveillance; those reporters publish their stories; then the president himself calls attention to them on his Twitter feed:

This particular PR maneuver is not unprecedented, but the point is this: What’s obviously of most importance to the president of the United States isn’t the fact that his associates were in contact with people from Russia (or other countries) who were of sufficient interest to U.S. intelligence that they would be under surveillance, but whether or not each new detail that emerges does or does not support his idiotic tweets.

And this is why I argue that Fox and some of Trump’s allies are only helping him hurt himself. Much of the time, having a supportive amen chorus has great political utility, because it helps buck up your base and disseminate the arguments you’re making. But it’s one thing when those arguments are things like “We should cut taxes” or “Obamacare is a disaster.” It’s something else when they’re trying desperately to claim that every stupid thing Trump ever said is actually true.

In this case, clinging to the idea that the Obama administration unfairly monitored the Trump campaign only encourages further investigation of what could turn out to be one of the biggest scandals in American political history. Nunes’s buffoonish efforts on Trump’s behalf haven’t helped him at all. Quite the contrary, they’ve made his committee utterly irrelevant and increased pressure on the Senate Intelligence Committee to conduct a thorough and objective review. Nunes has zero credibility, and so he can no longer be an asset to the White House.

But when Trump tunes in to “Fox & Friends” every morning, he learns that he’s right about everything. He doesn’t need to listen to his intelligence briefers or anyone else who might tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. He can keep telling tall tales and pursuing his petty grievances. He never does anything wrong and never has to change. I shudder to think how that dynamic will play out when this administration faces its first foreign policy crisis, with untold numbers of lives at stake.