Chances are that President Donald Trump did not want to wake up, 24 hours after the directors of the FBI and the National Security Agency spent the day testifying before Congress, to see historian Douglas Brinkley’s quip ― “There’s a smell of treason in the air” ― being bandied about in newspapers. But even for those less inclined toward the melodramatic, Monday’s hearing was a bad day for the Trump White House.
Or, as Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes put it, “Really bad.” The basic upshot is this: FBI Director James Comey confirmed that there is an ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to “interfere with the 2016 presidential election” and the possible “links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.” But what’s not ongoing? Any inquiry into Trump’s claim that his predecessor, then-President Barack Obama, ordered wiretaps on Trump’s phones. On this, Comey’s judgment was tactful but categorical. “I have no information to support those tweets,” he said, referring to Trump’s March 4 Twitter binge that plunged all of Washington into a new and nonsensical turn of the narrative.
The headlines were not kind. Politico’s Todd Purdum sized up Trump’s predicament as one that might not be easily shaken, potentially absorbing “months, if not years” of time, as well as a whopping heap of political capital. New York Times op-ed columnist David Leonhardt was inspired to reaffirm Trump’s place in the hierarchy of falsehood-mongers: “He lies in ways that no American politician ever had before.”
And The Washington Post surmised that Trump was now facing “his hardest truth” ― that he “was wrong.” Facing that truth will not be an easy task. As the Post’s Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker noted, Trump went into the day maintaining that he was the wronged party, at one point tweeting, “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!”
Trump’s inability to find the “leaker” truly sets him apart from the nation’s political reporters, who have been the beneficiary of leakers’ generosity on a near-daily basis. And after the Comey/NSA Director Mike Rogers hearing had concluded, it was The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman who won the daily leak-stakes, with a piece titled “Trump’s Weary Defenders Face Fresh Worries.” The pair reported that Trump’s “allies” are increasingly worried about his capacity for inflicting self-harm in 140-character outbursts and fear his “fixation on fighting is undermining his credibility.”
Of course, Trump’s tweet-rant about Obama’s phone “tapps” (Thrush and Haberman delighted in reminding their readers about that misspelling) is perhaps the very definition of a self-defeating, credibility-killing outburst. And yet Trump has marshaled the forces of his inner circle to keep digging a deeper hole beneath the divot he scarred into the discourse over two weeks ago. The question is, now that Comey has effectively shut the door on any possible probe of Trump’s claim, whether there’s some sort of endgame in sight for the “tapp” flap. Thrush and Haberman pointed to an answer, and it’s not a hopeful one:
People close to the president say Mr. Trump’s Twitter torrent had less to do with fact, strategy or tactic than a sense of persecution bordering on faith: He simply believes that he was bugged in some way, by someone, and that evidence will soon appear to back him up.
That is ... well, let’s say unsettling. A few days ago, I likened Trump’s embrace of this wiretap story to his previous embrace of birtherism ― but at the time, I referred to him as an “opportunistic dabbler,” not a full-blooded true believer. In fact, I reckoned that Trump might, in the end, use the same convenient off-ramp he deployed when he tried to exit the birther lifestyle: declare himself to be the brave raiser-of-questions who found out the truth, put the matter to bed, and now only require everyone’s congratulations.
But the Times’ sources leave the distinct impression that Trump has, perhaps, slipped the surly bonds of reality in a decidedly high-octane way. Think Diane Ladd in “Wild at Heart” with the lipstick and the David Lynchian brass stings. There may never be an end to this persecution fantasia.
There are remedies, but not pleasant ones.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.