On the 60th day of his presidency came the hardest truth for Donald Trump.
He was wrong.
James B. Comey — the FBI director whom Trump celebrated on the campaign trail as a gutsy and honorable “Crooked Hillary” truth-teller — testified under oath Monday what many Americans had already assumed: Trump had falsely accused his predecessor of wiretapping his headquarters during last year’s campaign.
Trump did not merely allege that former president Barack Obama ordered surveillance on Trump Tower, of course. He asserted it as fact, and then reasserted it, and then insisted that forthcoming evidence would prove him right.
But in Monday’s remarkable, marathon hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Comey said there was no such evidence. Trump’s claim, first made in a series of tweets on March 4 at a moment when associates said he was feeling under siege and stewing over the struggles of his young presidency, remains unfounded.
Comey did not stop there. He confirmed publicly that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and associates with Russia, part of an extraordinary effort by an adversary to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election in Trump’s favor.
Questions about Russia have hung over Trump for months, but the president always has dismissed them as “fake news.” That became much harder Monday after the FBI director proclaimed the Russia probe to be anything but fake.
“There’s a smell of treason in the air,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. “Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mind-
For Trump, Comey’s testimony punctuates what has been a troubling first two months as president. His approval ratings, which were historically low at his inauguration, have fallen even further. Gallup’s tracking poll as of Sunday showed that just 39 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s job performance, with 55 percent disapproving.
The Comey episode threatens to damage Trump’s credibility not only with voters, but also with lawmakers of his own party whose support he needs to pass the health-care bill this week in the House, the first legislative project of his presidency.
Furthermore, the FBI’s far-reaching Russia investigation shows no sign of concluding soon and is all but certain to remain a distraction for the White House, spurring moments of presidential fury and rash tweets and possibly inhibiting the administration’s ability to govern.
Some of Trump’s defenders said the impact of Comey’s testimony could easily be overtaken if the White House is disciplined enough to marshal its agenda, as well as Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, through Congress.
“All that really matters this week is Gorsuch moving forward and the House passing step one of Obamacare repeal,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist who works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “All the rest is noise.”
On the Russia issue, Trump and his aides were defiant Monday in the face of Comey’s testimony. Before Comey was sworn in at the hearing, Trump tried to set the tone with a series of early-morning tweets decrying the accusations of collusion with Russia as “FAKE NEWS” being pushed by defeated Democrats and arguing that the real scandal is the leaking of sensitive information from within the intelligence community.
“Must find leaker now!” he wrote in one tweet from his personal account.
During Comey’s testimony, Trump offered live commentary on his official presidential Twitter account, pushing the argument that Russia did not influence the election.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer picked up the torch in the afternoon, trying in a contentious briefing with reporters to deflect attention from Trump’s false wiretapping charges while steadfastly refusing to admit any wrongdoing.
“I think we’re going to test the outer limits of the Trump ‘fake news’ cult,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist. “The central contention that Barack Obama wiretapped Donald Trump in Trump Tower was blown out of the water and utterly dismissed.”
As always in Trump world, where the guiding ethos is winning at any cost, the worst sin is conceding defeat.
Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said Trump’s wiretapping situation reminded her of his “death spiral” after lashing out at a federal judge over his Latino heritage.
“He just cannot let it go,” Palmieri said. “Except this time he is getting slapped down by the sitting FBI director. That’s a brutal blow to his credibility and a huge opportunity cost. He should be focused on salvaging his health-care bill, not continuing to draw all of America’s eyes to the Russia investigation.”
A master showman, Trump surely could intuit the theatrical power of Comey trekking to Capitol Hill to testify for several hours about Russia, all broadcast live on national television.
“It just makes it much more vivid,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who has worked in the three previous Republican administrations. “It’s one thing to read statements from a transcript or a newspaper, and that’s not unimportant, but when you see it on video, it carries a punch.”
Spicer’s defense strategy was in part to distance Trump from the figures under investigation by the FBI for their ties to Russia. In Spicer’s telling, Paul Manafort was a virtual nobody, someone who “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
Manafort was actually Trump’s campaign chairman and de facto manager for five months last year, from the end of the primaries through the summer convention and the start of the general election season.
“Watching Sean Spicer twist himself into a pretzel yet again to try to pretend that Paul Manafort isn’t an influential figure is ludicrous,” Wehner said. “It’s like saying Aaron Rodgers isn’t a central figure for the Green Bay Packers.”
Brinkley, who has published biographies of such presidents as Gerald Ford, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt, said of Trump’s start, “This is the most failed first 100 days of any president.”
“To be as low as he is in the polls, in the 30s, while the FBI director is on television saying they launched an investigation into your ties with Russia, I don’t know how it can get much worse,” Brinkley said.
But Trump’s supporters have proved largely impervious to the political winds, at least so far. The president jetted late Monday to Louisville, to rev up another mega-rally crowd — separating himself from the swamp of Washington by more than 600 miles.
“My gut is that he’s bulletproof with his base,” said Austin Barbour, a Mississippi-based Republican strategist. “There’s just this massive distrust of Washington, and whether that’s fair or not — of Washington, of the intelligence community, of Congress, of the judicial branch — it’s just the reality outside of the Beltway.”