President Trump was “mad — steaming, raging mad,” The Post reports. No one was defending his harebrained assertion that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. How dare they not defend the indefensible! No Republican seemed to see his allegation as credible or vouch for it on the Sunday talk shows. Mark Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a bevy of conservative commentators set out to debunk Trump’s latest lunacy. Then along came former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., who said straight out that nothing of the sort had occurred.
And all that — a weekend of Trump tantrums — came before what is possibly the most stinging and embarrassing rebuke to date of the beleaguered president. The Post reports:
FBI Director James B. Comey asked the Justice Department this weekend to issue a statement refuting President Trump’s claim that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump’s phones before the election, according to U.S. officials, but the department did not do so.
Comey made the request Saturday after Trump accused Obama on Twitter of having his “ ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” The White House expanded on Trump’s comments Sunday with a call for a congressional probe of his allegations. . . .
It is not clear why Comey, who is the senior-most law enforcement officer who has been overseeing the FBI investigation from its inception in the Obama administration, did not himself issue a statement to refute Trump’s claims. Nor is it clear to whom he made his request. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself last week from all investigative matters related to the Trump campaign and any potential Russia links. The acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, a career federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, is now overseeing the probe.
To recap: The president wants congressional committees to look into his own baseless allegation while his FBI director wants the Justice Department to declare that this is hogwash.
Comey’s extraordinary request underscores the degree to which the chief executive really is not leading the executive branch (including the intelligence community) in a meaningful way. Trump’s compulsion to destroy any source of damaging facts has propelled him into a war with the responsible media, with critics, with the previous administration and with the intelligence community. They all represent a threat to his ego, to his desire to be the sole source of information that can excuse away his aberrant behavior and rhetoric. He demeans, slanders and denigrates his own intelligence community; no doubt infuriated with his prevaricating and attacks on their integrity, leakers (whether in the White House, the bureaucracy or the intelligence community) retaliate by exposing his falsehoods.
The episode also highlights how emotionally out of control Trump is. He lashes out with tweets, rails at aides and vilifies the media. This is not a rational person exercising good judgment. The effect on morale in the executive branch, Congress and Republicans more generally is profound. For our allies, it is terrifying. “It is sending a terrible message out there,” said former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta. “I can tell you, based on my own conversations with people abroad, that they are very concerned about the administration, about the president. They are concerned about whether he truly is going to be committed to the kind of world leadership that we have seen the United States provide.” He added that “every time these things happen, every time he tweets, every time these issues come up that indicate that — you know, there’s obviously something to this Russian issue, and the administration is not cooperating, when that happens, when he accuses a past president of wiretapping, without any evidence of that being the case, it makes us vulnerable.”
And finally, we can see that Comey and Republican senators increasingly go their own way and refuse to rationalize or condone Trump’s rants. Trump becomes incensed when they won’t play along, but why should they? Comey, after his ill-timed intrusions into the 2016 election with missives about Hillary Clinton’s emails, is now struggling for career redemption. Senate Republicans are fighting to keep their agenda on track and keep their party from devolving into a mob of fabulists, conspiratorialists and crackpots. Sure, Trump has plenty of yes men and enablers in Congress, but even they are not going to follow him over the brink.
In sum, Trump is emotionally unhinged and, as a result, increasingly isolated even from fellow Republicans. Trapped in a cycle of accusation, insufficient (in his eyes) support and then more accusations, Trump once more calls into question his ability to function rationally in his job. For now, it will overshadow just about everything else.