It was just last week when FBI Director Chris Wray, whom Donald Trump chose for the job, balked when asked if federal law enforcement “spied” on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. “That’s not the term I would use,” Wray said during Senate testimony. He added that he hasn’t seen “any evidence” to bolster claims of “illegal surveillance” against the president’s political operation.
This morning, Trump came to a very different conclusion.
“My Campaign for President was conclusively spied on. Nothing like this has ever happened in American Politics. A really bad situation. TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!”
Let’s take a minute to consider each of these points individually.
“My Campaign for President was conclusively spied on.” I don’t know how the president defines words like “conclusively” or “spied,” but this remains difficult to take seriously. There was, to be sure, an investigation into the Russia scandal, and the Russia scandal involved Trump’s political operation, but there is no evidence of illegal surveillance. In fact, given what we know, the claim is rather bizarre.
“Nothing like this has ever happened in American Politics.” Well, it’s true that Americans have never had to confront circumstances in which a foreign adversary attacked our elections in the hopes of putting a specific candidate in power. It’s also true that the circumstances never warranted an investigation like this into suspected wrongdoing. But if Trump thinks this dynamic makes him look better – or more to the point, look like a victim – he’s badly misreading this situation.
In fact, this latest instance is arguably more offensive that the president’s usual confusion, because of who, exactly, Trump is targeting.
In context, the Republican isn’t just talking about amorphous enemies he believes are lurking in the shadows; Trump is specifically accusing federal law enforcement of committing “treason” – a capital offense, punishable by death.
Imagine working as a federal prosecutor at the Department of Justice, or perhaps an agent at the FBI. Imagine seeing the American president’s tweet this morning, and realizing that in Trump’s mind, those who scrutinized one of the most serious scandals in our history deserve “long jail sentences” – not because there’s evidence of wrongdoing, but because the president says so.
The subtext, to the extent that Trump understands subtleties, seems to be that Trump likes the idea of imprisoning those who investigate him.
For many in federal law enforcement, that’s not a hypothetical concern. After all, much of Trump’s operation – his inaugural committee, his foundation, his business, etc. – are currently under investigation.
In this context, Trump’s tweet is more than a petulant president popping off; it’s an abuse of power.