The charges are not supported by any evidence. On Sunday, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said there was no order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the "FISA court" after the law that created it) to monitor the Trump campaign's communications. That categorical denial contradicted the sketchily sourced claims made by a number of right-wing outlets — some stories also ran in British media — that a White House aide forwarded to The Washington Post's Fact Checker when asked to account for Trump's explosive claims.
Trump also invoked the Watergate scandal on top of his earlier complaint of McCarthyism.
The Fact Checker noted that even if we accepted the right-wing reports cited by the White House as fact, there still is no evidence for the claim that Obama ordered the tapping of Trump's phone calls or for White House press secretary Sean Spicer's subsequent statement citing "reports" of "potentially politically motivated investigations."
Seemingly prompted by Trump's Twitter outburst — where, to be clear, the current president accused the former president of committing a crime — the White House has now called for a full investigation into whether its own unsubstantiated allegations are true.
Needless to say, Trump's critics are unimpressed.
"This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens,” said Josh Earnest, a former White House press secretary under Obama. He accused the Trump administration of trying to distract from the controversy surrounding its alleged contacts with Russian officials.
"We know exactly why President Trump tweeted what he tweeted," Earnest told The Post. "There is one page in the Trump White House crisis management playbook, and that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal. And the bigger the scandal, the more outrageous the tweet."
Earlier this year, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, crafted a "taxonomy" of how Trump uses Twitter to shift the conversation from unwelcome reports and subsume the news cycle with his own agenda.
We have been here before. Just in the past month, Trump took to Twitter to float distractions on the size of the crowd at his inauguration, fear-monger over migrants in Sweden and spread baseless allegations that millions voted illegally in last year's election. He tweeted his declaration that the mainstream media is the "enemy of the American People." And it should never be forgotten that Trump's political career began with a lie he peddled about Obama's place of birth and repeatedly tweeted from 2012 to 2014.
Now Trump has raised the stakes even further. Observers such as Russian dissident Garry Kasparov see the grim parallels to overtly authoritarian rulers. Kasparov, a staunch critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has said that Trump reminds him of the demagogic Russian leader. By targeting Obama, Trump is embracing an old tradition.
Trump's megaphone on Twitter, along with the right-wing media bubble that seems to envelop the White House, enables that narrative of victimization. "In its first weeks, the Trump administration has found its own propaganda outlets, and has tried to undermine independent news outlets," wrote Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.
America's deep political polarization means that millions of people will believe Trump's tweets over the efforts of scrupulous fact-checkers.
"Conspiracy thinking has been normalized in American politics in a way that almost nobody could have expected a year ago," wrote American political scientist Paul Musgrave. "Today, it is plausible to think that U.S. politics could soon resemble cultures that most Americans once regarded as conspiratorial or paranoid."
Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish journalist and critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrote last year about the way both Erdogan and Trump successfully bludgeon the press to spin their own message.
"The reason why the fact-checking mechanism in these societies does not work is because polarization is so high that no one believes what the other camp is saying," wrote Zeynalov. "If CNN or the New York Times claims that Trump is lying, they’re immediately branded as dishonest liberal media."
That has indeed become the default response of the Trump administration in its short time in power. An editorial this past week in German newsweekly Der Spiegel delved into how such tactics eventually lead to a divided and befuddled public: "The effect of all of this is that truth and lies are being blurred, the public is growing disoriented and, exhausted, it is tuning out."
The editorial also raised the connection to Erdogan's Turkey: "Erdogan and Trump are positioning themselves as the only ones capable of truly understanding the people and speaking for them. It's their view that freedom of the press does not protect democracy and that the press isn't reverent enough to them and is therefore useless," wrote Der Spiegel. "They believe that the words that come from their mouths as powerful leaders are the truth and that the media, when it strays from them, is telling lies. That's autocratic thinking — and it is how you sustain a dictatorship."
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