For a White House that so disdains the media, it sure spends a lot of time obsessing about it. After the giant sigh of relief that met President Donald Trump’s speech to Congress a week ago, the unveiling of a pared-back Muslim-majority country travel ban was put back to allow the glow to linger a little longer. But that went out the window twenty four hours later with the revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had lied about meeting with the Russian ambassador.
Rendered apoplectic, not least by Mr Sessions’ decision (cowardly, in his view) to recuse himself from all further investigation into alleged Russian meddling in last year’s election, Mr Trump then found a way to change that conversation again by making the explosive claim in a series of Tweets on Saturday morning that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower in October without offering any evidence to support it.
Come Monday, unveiling the revised travel ban seemed suddenly, if not to Trump himself, then certainly to his frazzled aides, like a good idea again. Trump was kept off the airwaves, as three grey-haired cabinet members, led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, soberly presented a new executive order that removed Iraq from the list of affected countries and had otherwise been tweaked in hopes the courts wouldn’t blow it up again.
This is the pinball reality of Washington nowadays – multiple metal balls ricocheting in all directions, unleashed by an intemperate and gleeful player-in-chief, all accompanied by a non-stop cacophony of bells, klaxons and flashing lights. No one can hope to keep up and no one can tell yet if the score he is piling up in spinning neon digits is impressively high or disastrously low. But to Trump, all that matters for the moment is the racket and the motion.
His Towergate play on Saturday was especially diabolical, one more masterstroke of distraction to add to a long list of them. Like the time he said millions had voted illegally when he was forced to confront the fact that he had lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a mile. Or the time he claimed record crowds for his inauguration when the rest of us were looking at photographs of empty fields.
But this was especially wanton. Such an assertion demanded some crumb of proof. He surely knew no president – even he – has the legal authority to order secret surveillance of a political rival. It would require a green light from a judge or a court. That, moreover, would only be given if credible evidence were already present to suggest that indeed the Trump campaign had colluded with a foreign power to subvert the election. Is that where Trump wants this to go?
So there we are then. This time Trump really blew it. His most trusted officials have been unable to contend that their boss had the faintest idea what he was talking about when he made those Tweets, which included the description of Mr Obama as “bad” and “sick”. Most extraordinary were reports that James Comey, the FBI director, had asked the Justice Department publicly to repudiate them as pure nonsense. Less than six weeks into his first term, the law-and-order President has triggered mutiny from the very top of his most important law-and-order agency.
Yet, we can barely count the times we have declared with great certitude that Trump had finally crossed a line only to find it had been drawn in disappearing ink. That Access Hollywood tape about Trump’s boasting of sexual predation was the death of his campaign until it wasn’t.
So, we must pull ourselves in check. Trump doesn’t ignore the rules just because he likes to or even just because he knows his supporters want him to. Nor is it just that he knows he won’t get punished for doing it, at least not any time soon. His reasons for breaking the rules are often more complicated and more devious. With this tirade, for instance, he didn’t just change the subject, he scrambled it, a trick completed when the White House asked Congress at the weekend to include consideration of the Obama administration breaking anti-snooping rules, including possible wire-tapping of Trump Tower, in its incoming investigations into possible Trump-Russia ties. Plenty of Republicans have already said they will go along.
Thus several things have happened. Now when the subject comes up of Russia and Trump, the default response of Trump’s supporters, at least, will be be, “Ah, but look at how much worse Obama was”. It’s like the school bully responding to being told off for some random act of violence by concocting something much worse about someone else in the playground. In the meantime, any White House official who is asked to offer substantiation for this Saturday morning’s Tweets can now shrug and say it is a matter for Congress to sort out.
Clearly Trump reacts to things on impulse, often with the help of Twitter. The Sessions affair was the last straw. For days, he had been fuming about endless leaks meant to harm him and the media’s appetite for them. On Saturday he let off steam, and the immediate fall-out may actually have been positive for him. Indeed, by all accounts, he remains quite unrepentant about them.
But wait. Trump may not have been as clever as he thinks. Having your FBI chief give you a public spanking is not clever. Giving Congress reason to expand, not narrow, its probes into your possible collusions with Russia during and after last year’s election is not clever. And if you have any desire to broaden your support and rescue your approval ratings, calling your popular predecessor a crook is definitely not clever. Even the Kremlin on Monday was desperately trying to distance itself from the whole mess that the topic has become in Washington.
He may not see any of this yet, but he will eventually. This will seem like wishful thinking to some, but the day will come when Trump’s magic bottle of disappearing ink runs empty.