Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he was going to let President Trump's tweets alleging wiretapping by former president Barack Obama speak for themselves. This week, Spicer is not merely speaking for the tweets; he is rewriting their meaning.
“If you look at the president's tweet, he said very clearly, quote, 'wire tapping' — in quotes,” Spicer said during Monday's news briefing, making air quotes with his fingers to emphasize his point. “There's been substantial discussion in several reports. … There's been reports in the New York Times and the BBC and other outlets about other aspects of surveillance that have occurred. The president was very clear in his tweet that it was, you know, 'wire tapping' — that spans a whole host of surveillance types of options.”
Ah, the old air-quotes defense. According to Spicer's new argument, Trump didn't necessarily mean wiretapping when he said “wire tapping” — and reporters should know this because he put the phrase in quotation marks. By “wire tapping,” Trump could have been referring to any one among “a whole host of surveillance types.” Obviously.
This is quite a remarkable standard Spicer is trying to set for his boss. None of the “several reports” Spicer referenced actually claim that Trump or his aides were wiretapped, despite claims to the contrary. Fox News Channel's Steve Doocy said on the air Monday morning that “there's no doubt about the fact that at least Michael Flynn was wiretapped,” and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said on CNN a short time later that “we know that General Flynn was wiretapped.”
Wrong. The Washington Post reported last month that pre-inauguration phone calls between Flynn, who resigned as national security adviser, and Russia's ambassador to the United States were intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies because the ambassador was wiretapped. That's a key distinction that the president's aides and media boosters seem determined to obscure.
If Trump has evidence that Flynn or anyone else on his team was bugged, he has not produced it, and news reports do not support his charge against Obama.
But Spicer contended in the briefing room that Trump is nevertheless right by an incredibly loose definition of “wire tapping” that includes a wide range of investigatory tactics.
The unavoidable conclusion is this: Spicer knows that no evidence of actual wiretapping is coming, so his best shot to vindicate Trump is to claim that “wire tapping” could mean something else.