We know that James B. Comey is a leaker. It's doubtful that he's a criminal; legal experts have said that even though the former FBI director shared his memos of conversations with President Trump with the media, if the information wasn't classified, that probably wasn't a crime.
Which could help explain why on Sunday, Trump upped the ante by tweeting this:
I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible. Totally illegal? Very 'cowardly!'
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 11, 2017
Trump just basically accused the FBI director he fired of leaking classified information, days after Comey testified under oath to Congress that the president might have interfered in an FBI investigation.
In hindsight, this tweet probably shouldn't have been surprising: When the president feels threatened, his go-to move is to accuse his opponent of doing something illegal and offer no evidence to back it up. Conspiracy theorists can and will pick this up and run with it, people can choose to believe which narrative they want, and the waters are sufficiently muddied.
Except this time, Congress may actually force the president to try to prove his claim.
For now, this flame-throw-and-duck method might work well, when Trump and Comey are in a classic he-said, he-said standoff. Comey testified to the Senate last week that Trump tried to interfere in the FBI's investigations of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn and that Trump lied about why he fired Comey.
Trump has now twice accused Comey of lying. Trump and his private attorney have denied that Trump asked Comey for a loyalty pledge and to back off the FBI's various Flynn investigations. But regarding Flynn, Trump offered up in the next breath: “And there'd be nothing wrong if I did say that, according to everything I read today.”
But soon, Trump could regret this tweet. Congress might be calling the president's bluff — if that's what it is — by asking the White House to turn over tapes of Trump's conversations with Comey (if they exist) and other evidence of their conversations. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) even invited Trump to testify before Congress. (“One hundred percent,” Trump said Friday when asked in a news conference if he'd testify under oath if asked.)
The problem for Trump is that Comey is a largely credible witness, and his testimony under oath was detailed and shocking.
Unlike Comey, Trump has offered no proof. And he appears to be going out of his way to create another story line: Comey is a leaker (true), and maybe even leaked more than we know about and it might be illegal (there is no evidence for this).
Trump has followed this playbook before. And if you measure victory by distraction, it has worked beautifully for him.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged that he did not disclose during his confirmation proceedings that he met with Russian officials during the campaign, Sessions had to recuse himself from overseeing the FBI's Russia investigation.
That weekend, Trump tweeted this:
Months later, there is still no evidence of this. Congress has launched no investigation of it. And the Trump-friendly chairman of the House Intelligence Committee had to recuse himself from that panel's Russia investigation after he tried to give the president something to hang onto.
Trump does this so often that reporters call him out in news stories for it. “It has long been his practice to stir up new controversies to deflect attention from a damaging news cycle,” The Washington Post's White House team wrote about the wiretapping tweet.
In November, just weeks after Trump's election, he claimed that the biggest voter fraud in U.S. history caused him to lose the popular vote. Seven months later, there's no investigation of this, and there is no evidence for it.
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
Each one of these claims — if true — would be on the scale of crimes in politics we haven't seen in decades — or ever.
Each one of these claims came immediately after Trump felt as though he were losing control of the narrative.
And each one of these claims has yet to be backed up with even a shred of evidence.
But that doesn't stop Trump from making them. This time, though, Congress may actually force him to try to prove it.