President Trump is tweeting again.
Monday morning featured a House Intelligence Committee hearing at which Trump's own FBI director, James B. Comey, disputed Trump's claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped him — and weighed in on other big Russia questions. But in advance of that, Trump took to Twitter to offer a red herring.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered the same argument during his wild news briefing Thursday. Spicer argued that the press was being much more skeptical of Trump's wiretapping claim than it has been of allegations that Trump colluded with Russia — despite there being no definitive proof of either. “When Devin Nunes came out and said there was no connection that he saw to Russia — crickets,” Spicer said, adding: “Where was your passion and where was your concern when they all said that there was no connection to Russia?”
It's understandable that this story line is frustrating to the White House. But the comparison between the coverage of Trump's wiretapping claim and the Russia-collusion allegations doesn't make much sense. And neither does Trump's suggestion that questions about possible collusion are “fake news.”
Basically, the White House doesn't seem to understand the difference between a circumstantial case and a conspiracy theory.
The first big difference is that no major media outlet has reported that there was definitely collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. This has always been in the realm of the possible, with some Democrats arguing that they believe it happened. It is something that is being investigated, in other words.
And there has been a drip, drip, drip of evidence that at least suggests the possibility of some kind of connection — most notably, the series of people close to Trump who failed to accurately disclose their talks with Russia's ambassador and the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia tried to help Trump. It's what the House Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), appropriately called a “circumstantial” case on Sunday. The evidence isn't conclusive, but the theory isn't based on nothing.
And neither, technically, is Trump's Obama-wiretapped-me claim — if you really drill down, that is. There is some thought that Trump associates, like Michael Flynn, could have been wrapped up in surveillance directed at the Russians — what intelligence calls “incidental collection.”
But Trump, as he often does, took this plausible theory and stretched it much further than the evidence suggested. He claimed that the surveillance targeted him specifically and that Obama was personally behind it.
The former claim has been reported, but only by a small handful of journalists — with others expressing significant skepticism after trying to confirm it. (Not even Fox News is standing by an analyst's reporting on this.) The latter claim seems to be based on nothing more than Trump's imagination.
Had Trump come out and merely expressed concern that people close to him were wrapped up in incidental collections, that would have merited investigation. But he cast it as a massive, Watergate-esque scandal, with one president spying on his potential successor. He prejudged the outcome in ways that the media and not even top Democrats have done when it comes to possible Trump-Russia collusion.
It is entirely possible that this whole Russia investigation will never prove any collusion between Trump and Russia. Even Democrats are slowly beginning to rein in their allegations — for fear of having overplayed their hands when all is said and done. And the media is acknowledging this skepticism.
Trump's problem is that he showed no such compunction or political discipline when he fired off those tweets about Obama wiretapping him.