It’s never a dull moment in Donald Trump’s White House, and this weekend was certainly no exception. Trump began the weekend early Saturday morning by tweeting out what seemed to be a conspiracy theory. This did precisely what it was intended to do, which was to divert attention from the growing questions about Russian influence in both the Trump campaign and in his administration. Trump was reportedly furious during a Friday meeting that Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the investigation, because to Trump any backing down from any previously-held position is a sign of weakness and not to be tolerated. As dawn broke on Saturday, Trump decided to distract the media by tossing another Twitter hand grenade into the political conversation, and as a result Sessions quickly dropped from the news.
Trump’s accusations were breathtaking ― all the more so since he didn’t offer the tiniest shred of evidence to back them up. According to Trump, President Barack Obama personally approved wiretapping Trump Tower at the height of the election season. He originally alluded to McCarthy, but then later was apparently counseled that the appropriate political parallel to use was Watergate. Which is more appropriate, since Richard Nixon did all sorts of nefarious things of this nature against his political opponents (see: “enemies list” if you don’t remember the term).
Whatever historical analogy you prefer, if Trump was right it would be an abuse of power for Obama to personally order a wiretap on the opposition party’s candidate for president in the midst of an election. This would be political misuse of the Justice Department of the highest order. Only problem is, there appears to be absolutely no evidence whatsoever to back up Trump’s claim.
Thankfully, there is one man who can go a long way towards clearing the whole mess up, with one public statement. His name is James Comey, and he runs the Federal Bureau of Investigation. So far, however, he is refusing to do so. This is an abdication of responsibility, further degrading Comey’s already-shaky public reputation. Millions of Americans lay at least part of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s election loss at Comey’s feet, and they’ve got a strong case to make in their belief. Comey interfered in politics in a fashion unseen in Washington since the death of J. Edgar Hoover, tipping the scales by speaking about an investigation into Hillary Clinton while remaining completely mum about an investigation into Russian ties to the Trump campaign. If he had publicly spoken of both investigations, he might have had a leg to stand on in making the case he was holding himself above politics. Since he didn’t, that case cannot be made.
James Comey now needs to make a public statement about the veracity of Trump’s tweeted accusation. He needs to either say: “There is no evidence to back this claim up,” or “It’s more complicated that that, and here are the reasons why,” or “Trump is right, and here’s what he was referring to.” The old dodge of “we do not comment on ongoing investigations” is no longer acceptable, at this point. Comey’s got to address this controversy in some fashion, and clear the muddied waters.
To date, Comey seems to want to have it both ways. The timeline on the controversy so far started with Trump’s early-morning tweets. Then, later in the day, the story broke that Comey had “directed senior F.B.I. staff to refute the allegations with a statement to the public.” The next morning, James Clapper ― former Director of National Intelligence under Obama ― appeared on Meet The Press and flatly denied that Obama had ordered any such wiretap, and that, furthermore, there were no wiretaps approved for Trump or the Trump campaign. Period. Since that point, the White House is pushing back against both Comey and Clapper, insisting that Trump doesn’t believe any of the denials.
This is where Comey is trying to have it both ways. Although the media picked it up and ran with it, Comey has not actually publicly addressed the controversy one way or another. A leak said that he directed senior staff to address it, but then no public statement ever appeared from anyone at the F.B.I. ― not on Saturday, not on Sunday, and not today.
In the first place, Comey shouldn’t be allowed to get away with punting this to some subordinate. He was the one to hold a press conference on Hillary Clinton’s investigation, after all, so he should be the one who addresses one president’s wild conspiracy claims against the previous president. Comey has worked for both men, so he should know exactly what went on before the election, after the election, and after Trump became president.
In the second place, there is assumably a list somewhere of every warrant the FISA court has ever issued (as well as the ones rejected). If, as some are now speculating, Trump just misunderstood the way that foreign intelligence is collected (presidents don’t order such things, there is a process), but that Trump has at least something to base his accusations upon (if a Trump server was wiretapped, for instance), then Comey needs to clear that up as soon as possible. A quick review of all of the FISA court’s actions over the past year would easily show whether there was anything to the accusation at all. It wouldn’t take that long, I would think. Certainly not two or three days.
Trump drew a very clear picture with his tweets. President Obama had personally directed the wiretapping of the Trump campaign right before the election. He got turned down once at the FISA court, but then finally did get a warrant. James Clapper denied that the Trump campaign had been wiretapped at all, in unequivocal terms Sunday morning. Assumably, any such FISA warrant would have at least crossed his desk at some point, given the job he was doing at the time. Yet he denied it happened. Trump said it did.
This leaves James Comey as the only one left who could easily clear this up. Unlike Attorney General Jeff Sessions or any other senior Trump administration official, Comey did not change jobs in January. He has an uninterrupted view of what happened, in other words. If, as was reported, Comey is instructing his own senior staff to rebut the charge, then he likely already knows it is baseless and false. If the reporting is wrong and there is a basis for Trump’s charge, Comey would know that, too. Either way, he should publicly say what he knows to be true. Hiding behind “we can’t comment” is simply unacceptable at this point.
In fact, as more time goes on before Comey does address it, the more people are going to begin to wonder what sort of pressures he’s facing from his two titular bosses ― Sessions and Trump. The White House is already publicly pushing back on the story that Comey has somehow broken with the president’s line on the issue. The White House itself has urged that an investigation be opened into the matter. No matter where the facts lead, at this point Comey is pretty much the only one who can make any sort of believable statement on the matter in the entire executive branch. One leaked story that Comey instructed his aides to refute Trump’s accusations is not enough. Comey needs to get out in front of the cameras and make a statement, and shine some sort of light on the situation. No matter what he’s got to say about what happened, the public needs to hear from James Comey as soon as possible.
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