President Donald Trump alleged in a tweet storm early Saturday that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower before his election win in November -- an accusation that a senior U.S. official told NBC News is baseless.Trump did not provide any evidence for the claims, which followed an interview on Fox News in which the allegation came up.
Immediately following the president's address to a joint session of Congress last week, a variety of pundits could hardly contain their excitement about The New Donald Trump. He'd finally "normalized" himself, Americans were told. He's "pivoted." He's hit the "reset" button. It took a while, but the Republican proved that he now understands how to be "presidential."Those pundits were spectacularly wrong, as Trump seemed eager to prove on Saturday morning. In what was supposed to be a quiet day for the president and his team, Trump jolted the political world in ways that caught nearly everyone off guard.
Even by the standards of Donald J. Trump, the president's online missives were extraordinary. The first message read, in its entirely, "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!"It was soon followed by a series of related tweets, in which the embattled Trump declared, "Is it legal for a sitting President to be 'wire tapping' a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW! I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election! How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"Soon after, the president turned his attention to the ratings of the reality show for which he serves as executive producer. Trump then played golf.This is a doozy of a story, so let's unpack what we know (and what we don't).Let's start with the question on everyone's minds: Huh? For quite a while, many have openly raised questions and concerns about Donald Trump's stability and relationship with reality. This latest Twitter tantrum not only makes pundits who praised him last week appear foolish, it also suggests the concerns about the president are well grounded.Why does Trump believe Obama had his "wires tapped" before the election? Perhaps the better question is why Trump believes anything he says about any subject. In this case, the president said on Saturday that he "just found out" about the alleged Obama scheme, but by all accounts, this didn't come from any official sources. It's likely the Republican president relied on a report from Breitbart, a right-wing website his former strategist used to run. (It's also possible Trump saw a piece in the National Enquirer about Obama being out to get him and started filling in the gaps with imagined evidence.)Why does Trump think secret surveillance is evidence of "McCarthyism"? Because he doesn't know what McCarthyism is, either.Is it possible Obama really did tap Trump's phone? Well, that's where this gets interesting. Whether Trump understands this or not, a president doesn't have the authority to unilaterally order a tap on an American's phone calls. An administration can, however, get a warrant if there's credible evidence that's brought before a judge.It creates an awkward dynamic: either there was no secret surveillance, in which case the president is starting to appear delusional, or there was secret surveillance, in which case there's evidence that Trump is suspected of serious crimes and/or is an agent of a foreign government. Either way, the Republican isn't doing himself any favors with tantrums like these.Has Obama responded to the allegations? The former president's spokesperson, Kevin Lewis, rejected the allegations as baseless. "A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice," Lewis said. "As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false."Note, that statement didn't say Trump wasn't the subject of an investigation, only that Obama and his White House team never ordered surveillance.What are members of Trump's White House team doing about this? As is often the case, the West Wing is starting with ridiculous comments from the president, and then reverse-engineering their way through the process.The New York Times reported, "[A] senior White House official said that Donald F. McGahn II, the president's chief counsel, was working to secure access to what Mr. McGahn believed to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing some form of surveillance related to Mr. Trump and his associates. The official offered no evidence to support the notion that such an order exists."Just as importantly, the same report added, "It would be a highly unusual breach of the Justice Department's traditional independence on law enforcement matters for the White House to order it to turn over such an investigative document. Any request for information from a top White House official about a continuing investigation would be a stunning departure from protocols intended to insulate the F.B.I. from political pressure. It would be even more surprising for the White House to seek information about a case directly involving the president or his advisers, as does the case involving the Russia contacts." In other words, by trying to substantiate the president's latest online harangue, the White House's counsel's office may end up interfering with a federal investigation.What are members of Trump's White House team saying privately? Not a whole lot. By all accounts, Saturday's presidential tantrum caught them my surprise -- Team Trump was not notified in advance that his latest outburst was coming -- and White House officials spent much of Saturday avoiding questions about what in the world their boss was talking about.Politico reported, "One White House official said he woke up Saturday morning to Trump's tweets and grimaced.... Several other people close to Trump said they weren't sure where he got his information for the posts. One of these people said most of Trump's aides were back in Washington and woke up exasperated at the posts."What are members of Trump's White House team saying publicly? White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke to ABC News' Martha Radditz yesterday and offered no evidence to bolster Trump's claims. She did say, however, "If this happened, if this is accurate, this is the biggest overreach and the biggest scandal." She went to say the "potential" exists that the wiretaps happened.Remember, the sitting president said Obama tapped his phone. Trump called it a "fact." Asked for an explanation, Huckabee Sanders said, "If this happened, if this is accurate..." which is amazing in its implications: according to one of Donald Trump's own press secretaries, it's at least possible Trump's claims aren't "accurate." By Huckabee Sanders' reasoning, the "potential" exists that the president's factual claims are simply bonkers.Press Secretary Sean Spicer, meanwhile, tried to pass the buck to Congress yesterday, saying the White House wouldn't offer any kind of defense for the president's latest wild-eyed tirade and wouldn't comment further.What are congressional Republicans saying? By all accounts, GOP lawmakers are "confused" by Trump's bizarre behavior, and have preferred to remain quiet. That, in and of itself, is extraordinary: a Republican president has raised serious allegations against his predecessor, but his Republican allies are saying very little in response.Faced with a sitting president pointing to an alleged scandal, nearly every congressional Republican passed on commenting, implying they almost certainly don't believe him, and are pretending Trump's stability is not in question.What now? By late yesterday, the story had followed an almost comical trajectory. Trump said something ridiculous and the White House tried to think of a defense. Coming up empty, Team Trump asked congressional Republicans to look for some kind of evidence -- as if it's the legislative branch's responsibility to offer post-hoc rationalizations for dumb Trump tweets.Don't be surprised if Congress puts the ball back in the White House's court, asking the president to declassify the evidence, if it exists, to support his claims.This is not a fine-tuned machine.