Donald Trump’s presidency has veered onto a road with no centerlines or guardrails.
The president’s accusation Saturday that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had tapped his phone “during the very sacred election process” escalated on Sunday into the White House’s call for a congressional investigation of that evidence-free claim.
The audacious tactic was a familiar one for Trump, who has little regard for norms and conventions. When he wants to change a subject, he often does it by touching a match to the dry tinder of a sketchy conspiracy theory.
But the stakes have gotten higher, and the consequences more real and serious, as questions mount over Moscow’s reported attempts to interfere with last year’s presidential election.
Trump’s response also has deepened doubts about his own judgment, not just in the face of the first crisis to confront his young presidency but in dealing with the challenges that lie ahead for the chief executive of the world’s most powerful nation.
His tweets may have been an effort to distract from revelations that his aides and associates had contact with Russian officials during the election and transition, as well as to deflect criticism onto Obama.
But instead, the president has invited more scrutiny to the larger controversy over Russian interference. The issue shows no signs of fading.
So explosive was Trump’s unsubstantiated wiretap accusation that FBI Director James B. Comey asked the Justice Department to take the extraordinary step of issuing a statement rebutting it, a U.S. official said, confirming a report Sunday in the New York Times.
The process of obtaining permission to conduct a wiretap on an American in a foreign intelligence investigation is an arduous one. If it turns out that a government agency put one on Trump or individuals around him, an obvious question would be what evidence was used to justify the action.
Trump’s tweetstorm early Saturday made his disciplined, well-received speech to Congress four days before seem less a turning point than an aberration.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump fired out, in the first of four tweets on the subject.
The charge was reminiscent of the early days of his political ascendancy, when he built a political base by pandering to the fringes with false stories about Obama’s birthplace. After he was elected with less than a popular majority, Trump made the groundless claim that millions of people had voted illegally.
But the voice of a U.S. commander in chief carries much greater weight than that of just about anyone else on the planet. Trump’s detractors say the way he uses that platform has worrisome implications that go far beyond the sensation he creates on social media and his ability to dominate the news.
“We have as president a man who is erratic, vindictive, volatile, obsessive, a chronic liar, and prone to believe in conspiracy theories,” said conservative commentator Peter Wehner, who was the top policy strategist in George W. Bush’s White House. “And you can count on the fact that there will be more to come, since when people like Donald Trump gain power they become less, not more, restrained.”
Nor does Trump appear to have a governing apparatus around him that can temper and channel his impulses.
“When the president goes off and does what he did within the last few days, of just going ahead and tweeting without checking on things, there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong in terms of the discipline within the White House and how you operate,” Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton and CIA director during the Obama administration, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Trump and his allies, however, say that the criticism is misdirected.
In their view, the concern over Russian interference in the election has been overblown by Democrats looking for an excuse for Hillary Clinton’s defeat last November.
They also say that more focus should be concentrated on the people within the government who are leaking sensitive information to the news media.
Within a government bureaucracy that tilts Democratic, “there is an active ‘deep state’ opposition to a populist disruptive reformer. Many believe it is their duty to break the law and lie,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich. “For Trump to succeed, there will have to be profound overhaul of the bureaucracy. To be normal in this environment is to fail.”
Still, Republicans on Capitol Hill have been unsettled by Trump’s latest claims, which come amid investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees and calls by some for more drastic measures, including a select committee, independent commission or special prosecutor.
“It would be more helpful if he turned over to the Intelligence Committee any evidence that he has,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of that panel, said on “Face the Nation.” “It would probably be helpful if he gave more information, but it also might be helpful if he just didn’t comment further and allowed us to do our work.”
Some note that Trump now sits in the Oval Office in large part because voters did not want another conventional politician in the job.
“A lot of this outrage that’s out there is because Donald Trump is doing what Donald Trump said he was going to do if he was elected,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who ran against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, said on “Meet the Press.”
Yet Trump’s accusations may well inflame — rather than calm — another sentiment that abounds in the country.
“This is exceedingly problematic. We were already in a huge deficit as to what the country trusted out of Washington and our leaders,” said Matthew Dowd, who has been a strategist for both Democratic and Republican politicians.
“This only adds to it,” Dowd said. “We’re in a surreal world.”