How Trump’s wiretap allegation strategy could backfire.

Trump and His Allies Want to Investigate Obama While Evading Investigations Themselves. They Can't Have it Both Ways.

Trump and His Allies Want to Investigate Obama While Evading Investigations Themselves. They Can't Have it Both Ways.

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March 17 2017 10:28 PM

“There Is No Question That Something Happened”

How the Trump camp's argument for investigating Obama could be turned against them.

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Donald Trump.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s White House has two spins for any investigation about Russia. One is “something there.” The other is “nothing there.” Lately, Trump and his aides have switched back and forth between these spins, hoping you won’t notice. It’s a cynical trick, and it could be turned against them.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

On March 1, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration, in its final days, had stashed away intelligence about links between Trump and Russia. Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, told the Times that the whole Trump-Russia story was “a false narrative.” “There continues to be no there there,” said Spicer.

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That’s the nothing spin: Either there’s clear evidence of collaboration between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, or there’s nothing. Either the wildest version of the allegation is true—Trump’s lawyer shaking hands with Vladimir Putin in a Prague café—or the whole thing is a “false narrative.” The point of this binary framework is to discredit and abort any investigation. If you can’t prove collusion, shut it down.

The something spin works the other way. It came in handy three days after the Times story, when Trump accused President Obama of “tapping my phones” in Trump Tower. Trump offered no evidence. Obama, FBI Director James Comey, and James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, made clear that the charge was bunk. It looked like a big nothing. But hold on, said Spicer. “There’s no question that something happened,” he told reporters. “The question is, is it surveillance, is it a wiretap, or whatever. But there’s been enough reporting that strongly suggests that something occurred. And I think that that’s why [Trump] wants Congress to look into this.”

That’s the something spin: Something happened, and we need to figure out what it is. If it’s not a phone tap, maybe it’s some other electronic intercept, or a leak, or whatever. To sort it out, we need an investigation.

The strategy is obvious: When you want an investigation, use the something spin. When you don’t, use the nothing spin. That’s why, from the outset of the Russia controversy, Republicans stuck to the nothing spin. Trump has messed that up. By accusing Obama, he has obliged Republicans to defend the investigation he wants, while minimizing the investigation he doesn’t want. He’s forcing them to argue both sides of the nothing/something question simultaneously. And that can get awkward.

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When Trump accused Obama of tapping his phones, he offered no evidence. The officials who would have known about a tap said it didn’t exist. By the nothing standard, he should have withdrawn the allegation. But he wouldn’t. So his aides had to concoct a something defense.

On March 5, Trump’s surrogates hit the airwaves. On ABC’s This Week, his deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called on Congress to investigate his charges against Obama, to “see whether there’s something there.” On Fox News, Kellyanne Conway argued that Clapper’s and Obama’s denials “left open the possibility” that surveillance or leaks could have “come from somewhere else” in the government. It could have been state or local surveillance, she ventured. It could have been through phones, TVs, or microwaves. When pressed to substantiate the charge, Conway shrugged, “I’m not in the job of having evidence. That’s what investigations are for.”

On Monday, Spicer claimed that when Trump said “wiretapping,” he was “referring to surveillance overall.” On Wednesday, Trump told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the White House would back up his charges with “certain things,” “some very interesting items,” and “some very good stuff.” On Thursday, Spicer promised reporters “additional information” that would show “something was going on during the 2016 election.”

Well, yes. Something was going on. An election, for instance. But what exactly is worth investigating, in terms of the alleged persecution of Trump? At Thursday’s White House briefing, Spicer brought out a stack of clips to make the case that something was there. The clips, taken from the Times, Circa, and Heat Street, described U.S. government efforts to collect intelligence on Russian meddling in the election. But they also illustrated something Spicer hadn’t meant to highlight: the gray but inescapable reality of the conduits between Russia and Trump.

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The Times stories cited by Spicer stipulated that investigators had “found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing” and “no evidence” that “the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.” But they also provided extensive evidence that lots of somethings had been going on. A preexisting investigation of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, for his consulting on behalf of Russia sympathizers in Ukraine. Communications between Trump’s friend Roger Stone and Julian Assange, whose WikiLeaks organization mysteriously obtained and published the emails hacked by Russians. Financial ties between the Russian energy industry and Carter Page, a minor Trump campaign adviser. An undisclosed meeting between Russia’s ambassador and Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is now Trump’s attorney general. A statement from Russia’s deputy foreign minister that “there were contacts” between Trump’s team and Russian officials. A statement from Trump inviting Russia to help him by releasing more hacked emails. And of course, payments and secret conversations between Russia and Trump’s then-adviser on military affairs, Michael Flynn.

As Spicer read aloud from the March 1 Times story, he skipped the part that said U.S. intelligence agencies had “intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.” He ignored the part that said our European allies had supplied “information about people close to Mr. Trump meeting with Russians in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries.” He passed over the sentence noting that in the previous two weeks, “more than a half-dozen officials have confirmed contacts of various kinds between Russians and Trump associates.”

Who are these Trump “associates”? Who were their Russian “contacts”? That’s what our intelligence services are investigating. The web of relationships between Trump and Putin isn’t a yes-or-no question. It’s a question of degrees of separation, who the participants were, and what they were doing. Once you recognize that the inquiry is about putting together the puzzle, not about finding a smoking gun, the case for dismissing it, or even doubting its worth, goes away.

That’s where we need to focus: not on debunking the wiretap accusation, which is already dying of non-corroboration, but on helping Americans to understand that Trump and his circle are connected to Russia in too many ways to ignore. We don’t need some elusive piece of evidence to justify or validate the Russia investigation. If Trump and his aides want to argue that evidence is what you find in an inquiry, not what has to be proved beforehand, fine. Embrace that argument, and demand that it be consistently applied. Obama will get the verdict that’s coming to him. So will Trump.

One more thing

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