Kellyanne Conway was doing okay. She’d effectively neutralized the bubbling outcry over comments she made to the Bergen Record, in which she defended President Trump’s evidence-free claims of wiretapping by noting that various household devices could be used to surveil a target. “You can surveil people through their phones, through their — certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways. And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera,” she’d said, comments that were more about Team Trump’s long-standing use of isolated anecdotes to rebut broad trends than they were about Conway auditioning for a role in a James Bond film.
So when Chris Cuomo brought the whole thing up on CNN’s “New Day,” she effectively repeated the dismissal she had given to ABC News earlier: She was talking generally about how spying could take place, not making specific allegations.
On CNN, though, her phrasing was a bit more fraught. “I’m not Inspector Gadget,” she said. “I don’t believe people are using the microwave to spy on the Trump campaign.”
“However,” she continued, “I’m not in the job of having evidence. That’s what investigations are for. I have said many, many times throughout the week that the president is pleased that the House and Senate intelligence committees have agreed that this should be part of the investigation that already exists about Russia and the campaign, an investigation that apparently has gone nowhere so far.”
At times, Conway is a master of rhetoric and spin. It’s why she has the job she does. And the second part of that comment shows some of her better work: suggesting that the House and Senate committees agree with Trump’s assertion that he was wiretapped, given that they have rolled the question into existing investigations.
In reality, there has been no evidence that Trump’s phones were wiretapped, as he claimed in tweets more than a week ago. The House and Senate committees — controlled by Republicans — are looping in Trump’s claims in part for the same reason that Trump brought them up in the first place: to help balance the political weight of the inquiries. Trump has offered no reason for anyone to agree with his suggestion; committees controlled by members of his own party agreeing to poke around isn’t the same thing at all. But if you’ve got to spin things, that’s decent spin.
The broader issue, the one that has been hounding Trump since those tweets, is that one would expect the White House not to make assertions without being able to back them up. Which is exactly why the first part of Conway’s comments is so remarkable and so lamentable.
You are in the business of having evidence, Ms. Conway. You are a representative of the president of the United States, and your business is presenting accurate information to the American people on his behalf. Providing accurate information is predicated on having evidence — public or private! — to bolster the arguments you’re making.
In this case, she’s making a specific reference to not having evidence to validate what Trump is saying, but even that is no excuse. She’s on national television, there to defend something the president said. If that’s not a moment where evidence is part of the job description, I’m not sure what is. Conway’s comment is like a detective showing up in court and saying from the witness stand that he’s not there to present evidence against the defendant — and then adding that the existence of the trial shows that the prosecution is on the right track.
The core problem is that Trump often puts his allies and aides in the impossible position of defending the indefensible, leaving them to scramble for ways to rationalize what he’s saying. A particularly poor way to do that is to claim that the concept of “evidence” is the domain of some select group of others, leaving everyone else to talk about things in a space where being able to back up claims is unimportant.
Former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said that “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” It’s a smart assertion, but an outdated one. These days, people apparently don’t need to have any facts at all.